Dr Argue puts ‘hobbit’ debate to rest

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A STUDY by The Australian National University has changed the “hobbit” debate after finding bones of Homo floresiensis, a species of tiny human discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, to most likely have evolved from an ancestor in Africa and not from Homo erectus as has been widely believed.

Dr Debbie Argue holds reconstructed Homo Floresiensis skull. Photo by Stuart Hay

The study found Homo floresiensis, dubbed “the hobbits” due to their small stature, were most likely a sister species of Homo habilis, one of the earliest known species of human found in Africa 1.75 million years ago.

Data from the study concluded there was no evidence for the popular theory that Homo floresiensis evolved from the much larger Homo erectus, the only other early hominid known to have lived in the region with fossils discovered on the Indonesian mainland of Java.

Study leader Dr Debbie Argue of the ANU School of Archaeology & Anthropology, says the results should help put to rest a debate that’s been hotly contested ever since Homo floresiensis was discovered.

“The analyses show that on the family tree, Homo floresiensis was likely a sister species of Homo habilis. It means these two shared a common ancestor,” Dr Argue says.

“It’s possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere.”

Homo floresiensis is known to have lived on Flores until as recently as 54,000 years ago.

This study used 133 data points ranging across the skull, jaws, teeth, arms, legs and shoulders, whereas previous research focused mostly on the skull and lower jaw.

Homo Floresiensis skull. Photo by Stuart Hay
Dr Argue says none of the data supported the theory that Homo floresiensis evolved from Homo erectus.“We found that if you try and link them on the family tree, you get a very unsupported result. All the tests say it doesn’t fit, it’s just not a viable theory,” he says.Dr Argue says the analyses could also support the theory that Homo floresiensis could have branched off earlier in the timeline, more than 1.75 million years ago.Dr Argue undertook the study along with ANU Professor Colin Groves, and Professor William Jungers from Stony Brook University, USA. The findings have been released in the Journal of Human Evolution.The study was the result of an Australian Research Council grant in 2010 that enabled the researchers to explore where the newly-found species fits in the human evolutionary tree.

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