Hobbit debate goes out on some limbs

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Two fossil hobbits have given what’s left of their arms and legs to science. That wasn’t enough, though, to quell debate over hobbits’ evolutionary status at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 17.

Since 2004, the discoverers of unusual “hobbit” fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores have attributed their find to a pint-sized species, Homo floresiensis, that lived there from 95,000 to 17,000 years ago. These researchers also suspect, on the basis of hobbit anatomy and recent stone tool discoveries on Flores, that H. floresiensis evolved from a currently unknown hominid species that migrated from Africa to Indonesia more than 1 million years ago.

Critics say the finds represent nothing more than human pygmies like those still living on Flores. In their opinion, the centerpiece hobbit find — a partial skeleton of an adult female known as LB1 — is what’s left of a woman who suffered from a developmental disorder that resulted in an unusually small brain and a misshapen skull and lower body.

But arm and leg fossils from LB1 and a second hobbit appear robust, not unhealthy, according to a new study directed by William Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York. The bones display humanlike thickness in the tough tissue that forms the outer shell of most bones, and opposite sides of the limb bones exhibit comparable thickness, a sign of healthy growth, said Stony Brook anthropologist and study coauthor Frederick Grine, who presented Jungers’ paper at the meeting.

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