The latest discoveries about hobbits — the kind that once lived on the Indonesian island Flores — didn’t wait until September 22 (National Hobbit Day) for publication. Reports in June 2016 Nature and PLoS ONE may help further elucidate the nature of the diminutive extinct people from Flores, mysterious people affectionately nicknamed hobbits after the universally recognized characters imagined by J. R. R. Tolkien. The skeletal remains of short individuals, including one remarkably small but human-shaped skull, have been the subject of debate ever since their 2003 discovery in Liang Bua cave along with stone tools and the leavings of a barbeque. Did the tiny Flores skull with its meter-tall skeleton and the associated bones of other very short people belong to diseased individuals or to representatives of an unusually dwarfish group of humans? Could a human being with a brain so small — as small as a chimpanzee’s — actually have the intellect to make tools and hold a cookout in a cave? Why would humans with such small brains evolve? And if the Liang Bua hobbits were typical of a whole group of humans — a separate species as the designation Homo floresiensis indicates — how were these people related to other groups of archaic humans?
Small Archaic Humans or Diseased Modern Humans?
The possibility that the Liang Bua hobbits were modern humans2 afflicted with some sort of growth disorder has been explored by a number of researchers. Studies have suggested that they had microcephaly, for instance, or hypothyroidism; but those conclusions were later rejected. The most recent such study concluded that the hobbits of Flores were modern humans with Down syndrome. This study was based on skeletal anatomy, not genetic information, as no hobbit DNA has been recovered; and obviously the researchers operated without the possibility of knowing whether the Liang Bua occupants had any of the soft tissue features generally associated with Down syndrome.
Paleoanthropologist Karen Baab and colleagues, in the latest PLoS ONE study, counter this claim that the Liang Bua hobbits had Down Syndrome. Dr. Baab’s team compared the bones from Liang Bua cave to those of modern humans with Down syndrome and determined that the few matching features are insufficient to conclusively support a diagnosis of Down syndrome.3 While the significance of the Liang Bua bones will doubtless be the subject of ongoing debate among anthropologists, Dr. Baab concludes, “There continues to be no very good evidence that this is a pathological modern human.”