Were Hobbits Real?

Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings. Photo credit: Neal Peters Collection
Hobbits in the Lord of the RIngs
Neal Peters Collection

New research based on dental morphology suggests that the skeletons of an early human-like creature known as Homo floresiensis represent a distinct species of human after all. The skeletons, which were discovered in a cave on Flores Island, Indonesia in 2003, belong to so-called “hobbits” that stood roughly between 3.5 and 4.5 feet tall.

Ever since they were discovered, anthropologists have debated whether the “hobbits” represented a new species, or if they were just modern humans with extreme hypothyroidism or cretinism, a condition often linked to iodine deficiency that causes incomplete development, small stature, and an undersized brain.

Assuming that H. floresiensis is a distinct species, how would such a tiny human evolve? One hypothesis comes from a section of island bio-geography called the island rule. The simple version of the island rule states that small animals tend to get larger on islands, as there are fewer predators to constrain them, while larger animals tend to get smaller because of the reduced resources available to them. Presumably if a population of regular humans became isolated on Flores, the island rule should apply and humans would evolve into a dwarf form. However, studies have shown that little evidence is found to support the island rule for primate brain size, which would challenge this hypothesis. For one thing, the skull of Homo floresiensis is significantly smaller than that of a normal human skull.

This newest paper is unlikely to quell the controversy. Tit for tat papers are not uncommon during unsettled scientific controversies, so the next paper on the topic might well argue for the “hobbit is really a small human” interpretation again. We’ll just have to stand by while a consensus is reached about the science.

JSTOR Citations

Small Wonders: Tiny Islanders Elevate 'Hobbit' Debate

By: Bruce Bower

Science News, Vol. 173, No. 11 (Mar. 15, 2008), p. 165

Society for Science & the Public

Body Size of Mammals on Islands: The Island Rule Reexamined

By: Mark V. Lomolino

The American Naturalist, Vol. 125, No. 2 (Feb., 1985), pp. 310-316

University of Chicago Press for American Society of Naturalists

James MacDonald

James MacDonald received a BS in Environmental Biology from Columbia and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University, spending 4 years in Central America collecting data on fish in mangrove forests. His research has been published in scholarly journals such as Estuaries and Coasts and Biological Invasions. He currently works in fisheries management and outreach in New York.

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