Jonathan Leake and Tom Baird (The Sunday Times)
The remains of a fossilised stone age pygmy, hailed as a new species of human when it was found two years ago, probably belonged to a disabled but otherwise normal caveman, researchers have claimed.
The discovery of the 18,000-year-old “homo floresiensis” on the Indonesian island of Flores was thought to be a major development in tracing human evolution when it was announced in 2004.
However, a new analysis of the 3ft skeleton, nicknamed the “hobbit”, along with other remains found at the site, has indicated they probably belonged to an early human suffering from microcephaly, a condition that causes an abnormally small head and other deformities.
“The skeletal remains do not represent a new species, but some of the ancestors of modern human pygmies who live on the island today,” concludes a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, one of America’s most respected scientific institutions. “The individual exhibits a combination of characteristics that are not primitive but instead regional and not unique but found in other modern human populations.”
The controversy began in October 2004 when Nature, a leading British science journal, published what appeared to be a groundbreaking paper about a new species of human.
The original team, co-directed by Michael Morwood from the University of New England in Australia and Professor Radien Soejono of the Indonesian Research Centre for Archeology, made the discovery in the Liang Bua cave.
The creature was found with fossils of animals including a snake, frog, monkey, deer and pig. “Here we have a creature that is substantially different from modern humans, a totally new species of our genus, that lived almost into historical times. This has a number of startling implications,” said Henry Gee, Nature’s senior editor for biological science, at the time.
Nature has confirmed that it subjected the manuscript to the normal scientific review process in which it was scrutinised by outside experts who approved its contents.
The new study suggests, however, that the initial evaluation of the remains was flawed.
Robert Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology at Pennsylvania State University, who was part of the new team, criticises the original study for comparing the skeleton with those of homo sapiens primarily from Europe.
A more accurate understanding of the “hobbit”, he says, emerges when comparing the bones against humans from the same region.
Some researchers had already expressed doubts over the original findings. Earlier this year Robert Martin, a primatologist at the Field museum in Chicago, said: “If you plot a graph of all of the data we have on brain sizes of hominids against time, [floresiensis] is the only one that falls right off the curve. It’s an anomaly.”