Fierce scientific debate has erupted over identity of Hobbit species
A heated international dispute has erupted over the publication of a paper earlier this month claiming that the tiny skeleton of an adult from Indonesia’s Flores island was a modern human with Down’s syndrome and not an ancient ‘hobbit’ species, according to a report in The Guardian .
In October 2004, excavation of fragmentary skeletal remains from the island of Flores in Indonesia yielded what was called ‘the most important find in human evolution for 100 years.’ Its discoverers dubbed the find Homo floresiensis, a name suggesting a previously unknown species, dated to have lived between 95,000 and 17,000 years ago. It has frequently been referred to as the ‘Hobbit’ species due to its supposedly small stature (approximately 3 feet 6 inches tall).
Modern Human and Homo Floresiensis (‘Hobbit’). Image source .
A report published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claimed that the fossilized remains found in Liang Bua cave on Flores contain important features most consistent with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, including a short thighbone and craniofacial asymmetry. However, the publication caused an immediate backlash from scientists around the world who have denounced the study.
"It is interesting their paper contains no images of skeletons of Down's syndrome individuals," said floresiensis expert Professor Dean Falk, of Florida State University. "If it had, you would see clearly that they look nothing like the Flores specimen. The idea is nonsense."
The debate has also been fuelled by claims that the latest paper has side-stepped proper scientific process and peer-review. For a start, the recent study carried out by Robert B. Eckhardt, of Pennsylvania State University, Maciej Henneberg, of the University of Adelaide, and Kenneth Hsü, of China’s National Institutes of Earth Sciences, relied on measurements of the fossils that had been taken by the late Indonesian palaeoanthropologist Teuku Jacob, who claimed the remains were those of a modern human with an abnormal skull. Jacob and his followers took the hobbit bones without permission and eventually returned them badly damaged.
Secondly, the editors of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) allowed the authors of the Down’s syndrome paper to avoid independent peer review because one of the study authors is an academy member and so is allowed to select his own referees when submitting the paper.
"The article is a contributed submission from an academy member, Kenneth Hsu, an 89-year-old hydrologist who has absolutely no expertise in the subject and who selected referees that were also without expertise in fossil hominin skeletons," said one of the key scientists involved in the discovery of Homo floresiensis, Professor Peter Brown, of the University of New England in Australia. "This is an outrageous abuse of the peer review process."
The editor of the journal Lancet, Richard Horton, said that the PNAS’s rule of allowing study authors to referee their own work makes the National Academy of Sciences “more like an amateur science club than a learned society”. He added, “they should stop this now before they ruin their reputation.”
Proponents of the view that the Homo floresiensis is a distinct hominid species have argued that individuals with Down’s Syndrome do not have a tiny cranium that is only 400 cc in capacity as Homo floresiensis does, nor do they have thick cranial bones as it does. “This is shockingly bad science riddled with errors of fact and attribution," said Professor William Jungers of the State University of New York.
If the Flores skeleton does in fact represent a unique ancient species, there are many fascinating questions to explore, such as: how did it get to the island of Flores? How did they manage to survive until relatively recent times when many other species became extinct? Did they co-exist or interbreed with modern humans? What was the eventual reason for their disappearance? For now, the answers to all these questions are unknown but perhaps in time, we will learn the truth about what many believe is one of our most endearing relatives, the hobbit.
The cave where the Flores bones were discovered. Image source: Wikipedia
Featured image: Thomas Sutikna of the Indonesian Centre for Archeology holds the skull of Hobbit which he and fellow scientist believe represents an new human species. Image source.