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Hobbit feet suggest ancient origins
05-08-2009, 01:54 AM,
Hobbit feet suggest ancient origins
Hobbit feet suggest ancient origins

Thursday, 7 May 2009

by Kerensa McElroy
Cosmos Online

SYDNEY: A study of the feet of the 'hobbit' Homo floresiensis adds to
evidence that it is a real species and not a diseased or dwarfed
modern human – the findings also hint it isn't even a close relative.

The remarkable discovery in 2004 of bones from a one-metre-tall
hominin, on the Indonesian island of Flores, sparked a scientific
furore. The bones date from around 18,000 years ago, and many believed
them to represent a new dwarf species of human, H. floresiensis, which
may even have persisted until 8,000 years ago.

Dwarf cretins

Others argued that the only known skull was from a modern human pygmy
or someone whose brain was dwarfed by diseases such as cretinism or
microcephaly, giving rise to an abnormally tiny skull.

Two new studies found in the British journal Nature today, go a long
way toward settling this debate, even as they raise new quandaries
that are sure to stoke further controversy.

William Jungers, an anthropologist from Stony Brook University in New
York, U.S., led a team of researchers who analysed the reconstructed
foot of the fossil. They compared the relative length, proportions and
the shape of individual bones to a large sample of foot bones from
humans and apes.

They found that, rather than being a shrunken version of a modern
human foot, the bones of the fossil exhibited a fascinating mixture of
primitive and modern features. In some ways it is very human. The big
toe is aligned with the others and the joints make it possible to
extend the toes as the body's full weight falls on the foot,
attributes not found in great apes.

Primitive hominin

But, in other respects, the foot would have been startlingly
primitive: far longer than its modern human equivalent, and equipped
with a very small big toe, long, curved lateral toes, and a
weight-bearing structure closer to a chimpanzee's.

"The foot evidence adds to the growing and overwhelming evidence that
this is not a modern person, but rather a new species", Jungers told
Cosmos Online. "These findings make it clear that there was more than
one way to be a successful hominin."

Recent archaeological evidence from Kenya shows that the modern foot
evolved more than 1.5 million years ago, most likely in Homo erectus.
So unless the Flores hobbits became more primitive over time, they
must have branched off the human line at an even earlier date.

This suggests "that the ancestor of H. floresiensis was not Homo
erectus but instead some other, more primitive, hominin whose
dispersal into Southeast Asia is still undocumented, " the researchers
concluded in their paper.

Companion studies, published online in the Journal of Human Evolution,
bolster this theory by looking at other parts of the anatomy, and
conjecture that these more ancient forebears may be the still poorly
understood Homo habilis. Either way, their status as a separate
species would be confirmed.

That still leaves questions about the curiously tiny head of the
hobbit – which had a chimp-sized brain of around 400 cm3, a third the
size of a modern human brain – seemingly too small even for a
legitimate dwarf species.

Hippo brains

In a second paper published this week in Nature, Eleanor Weston and
Adrian Lister, palaeontologists at the Natural History Museum in
London, showed that a model of brain size reduction in hippos might be
used to help explain the very small brain size of H. floresiensis.

Weston's team compared the brain sizes of extinct Madagascan dwarf
hippos to that of a modern common hippopotamus, scaled-down by body
size. Dwarf hippo brains were found to be up to 30% smaller than their
scaled counterparts.

Similarly, when they scaled a modern human brain down to the size of
H. floresiensis and then reduced it by a further 30%, they found a
volume very similar to that of the H. floresiensis fossil. "This
provides evidence for a possible evolutionary mechanism that could
explain brain size reduction in humans," said Weston.

Looking at all the evidence, Peter Brown, a palaeoanthropologis t at
the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia, thinks we may
be looking at a new species that last shared a common ancestor with
modern humans two million years ago.

"Walked like ducks"

"Evolution is full of experiments – some are successful and some
aren't. The Flores skeletons have many primitive features, including
the bones of the wrist, the anatomy of the ear region, and the ratio
of the arms to the legs. These are features found in our earliest
ancestors, the Australopithecines and are not going to be produced by
dwarfing," he said.

Maciej Henneberg, an anatomist from the University of Adelaide in
South Australia, and proponent of the disease theory of the hobbit,
isn't convinced, however. He points out that a human with these
proportions doesn't make evolutionary sense – 'hobbits' would have
been poor runners and clumsy hunters. "They would have walked like
ducks," he quipped.

Henneberg also questioned the comparison with hippos. "It is very
difficult to make a parallel between dwarfing of a water-dwelling
herbivore and an omnivore which lives on land," he said.

With AFP.

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