Is “The Hobbit” a fraud?

February 1, 2009 • 10:50 am

As recounted in WEIT, one of the most remarkable hominin fossils is that of Homo floresiensis, discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003. This creature was remarkable in that although it lived only 18,000 years ago, when modern H. sapiens had already evolved, it was only a meter tall, weighed 50 pounds, and had a brain of less than 500 cc.–similar in size to of our distant cousin Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”). It seemed that some relict populations of Homo had survived on this Indonesian island, bypassed by modern humans.

Ever since H. floresiensis (dubbed “The Hobbit”) was found, it has been the center of heated controversy. Some have said that rather than being a long-surviving ancient hominin, for example, the one good specimen found is simply that of a modern human afflicted with a growth disease (such as goiterious cretinism) that produced a small skull. Others counter-claim that the wrist bones of the hobbit are clearly not that of a modern human, but of an earlier relative.

Now another criticism has surfaced–the claim that the hobbit’s teeth show dental work! In particular, an anthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, Maciej Henneberg, claims that a lower molar of H. floresiensis shows a filling (and possibly a root canal) of the type performed in Indonesia in the 1930s. (See the articles about this claim here and here.) Could the hobbit be another Piltdown Man, a fraud foisted on a credulous scientific community?

Well, probably not. In a careful analysis of the dentition of H. floresiensis and a comparison with other ancient skulls, Peter Brown, one of the hobbit’s discoverers, debunks Henneberg’s claims. X rays and careful analysis (see the pictures on Brown’s page) show absolutely no evidence of dental work. Thus this claim, at least, has been debunked.

It is starting to look as if H. floresiensis really was a genuine species, but an anomalous one: a small population of tiny humans who hunted dwarf elephants with miniature spears. There will undoubtedly be more argument before this is settled.


H. floresiensis (l.), H. sapiens (r.). Photograph courtesy of National Geographic news.

3 thoughts on “Is “The Hobbit” a fraud?

  1. Jerry, in the final part of this piece you say: ‘It is starting to look as if H. floresiensis really was an anomaly, a small population of small humans who hunted dwarf elephants with miniature spears.’ The term ‘anomaly’ isn’t clear – do you think the evidence suggests this was an anomolous population of H sapiens, or a different species, as Peter Brown suggests? The question of what we would do with them if they were still around (send them to college or put them in a zoo?) is also intriguing…

    1. What I mean is that this is an anomalous population of HOMININS. Whether it was a different species depends on whether it would produce fertile and viable hybrids were it to encounter H. sapiens in nature. We don’t know that, so the designation of this form as H. floresiensis (a different species) is a speculative maneuver, the best we can do in the absence of any evidence for gene flow.

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