The discovery of diminutive human fossils in the Pacific island nation of Palau has thrown more fuel on an already raging scientific controversy over the "hobbit" fossils discovered several years ago.
The new fossils, described this week in Public Library of Science ONE, come from the island nation of Palau, about 1,000 miles north of the Indonesian island of Flores. These fossils clearly belong to modern humans, suggesting that the so-called hobbit discovered on Flores in 2003 wasn't so special after all.
The Flores fossils appeared to come from a separate and previously unknown species of human -- one that stood 3 feet tall, made complex tools and died out just 13,000 years ago. The discoverers dubbed these newfound cousins Homo floresiensis, and a public enthralled by visions of diminutive Komodo-dragon hunters called them hobbits.
But other scientists said H. floresiensis was more wishful thinking than solid science, based on mismatched bones and just a single half-complete skeleton. The hobbits' supposedly unique features, said skeptics, were either common to local pygmies or -- as underscored by their unprecedented tiny brains -- a physical deformity.
The newly discovered Palau skeletons possess many H. floresiensis features, but have normal-sized brains -- and that, say skeptics, is further evidence that the hobbits were deformed local pygmies. Others call the findings shoddy and irrelevant. It's impossible to know which side is right, but at least one thing is clear: The controversy isn't about to end.
"The people who support H. floresiensis are going to say, 'This is just a small-bodied population with characteristics that aren't identical to the hobbit,'" said study co-author Lee Berger, a paleoanthopologist at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. "And the guys who are against H. floresiensis are just going to say, 'We told you so.'"
The Palau bones belonged to people who lived between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago, stood between three and four feet tall and -- like the hobbits -- had recessed chins, oddly shaped orbital (eye socket) bones and large teeth. Their brains, however, were about three times larger than the hobbits', which were far smaller than predicted by any previous relationship of human brain to body size.
"The Berger paper is great because it shows that in the region you have small people with normal-sized brains, and you don't have to posit a new species to explain them," said Pennsylvania State University anthropologist Robert Eckhardt, a vocal proponent of hobbits as deformed Homo sapiens. "It's incredibly strong support for our hypothesis."
But critics point to flaws in Berger's methods. His fossils, found in seaside burial caves, were scattered by waves, leading the researchers to analyze composite averages rather than complete, discrete skeletons. They also noted that small-bodied Pacific pygmies have already been documented, so finding their remains is hardly surprising -- and the remains don't share other hobbit characteristics, such as a flaring pelvis and strange limb proportions.
"The comparisons are entirely speculative and essentially incommensurate," said Stony Brook University paleoanthropologist William Jungers.
To Jungers and other believers in H. floresiensis, Eckhardt's interpretation is little more than intellectual straw-grasping in defense of the taxonomical status quo.
"Whenever major new finds are made -- the naming of Australopithecus, Homo erectus, the first Neanderthal -- inevitably there are naysayers, and we're seeing that happen now," said Florida State University anthropologist Dean Falk.
But to Eckhardt, it's Falk and Jungers who are grasping at their own straws.
"This is what you'd expect in a field where there are more investigators than specimens," he said. "They're making up a whole theory for a single skeleton. In a sense, the fate of the field turns on it, so they're going to hang on to their hypothesis in any way possible."
What do researchers think who haven't taken sides?
"It's a complicated problem," said John Hawks, the University of Wisconsin anthropologist who edited the Berger paper but is undecided on H. floresiensis. "The simple answer is that we lack definitive information that would settle it."