Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Meanwhile, back in the Shire...

Remember that strange little fossil 'hobbit' I told you about back in April? Well, Homo floresiensis is in the news again. This time, it's being interpreted as the result of disease rather than representing a new species of human.

A group of scientists is arguing that the skeleton of a 3 ft-tall female found last year on the island of Flores is nothing more unusual than a modern human with microcephaly, a condition characterized by very small brain size. Dwarfism and abnormal facial structure are also associated with this condition, which these researchers suggest could account for the morphological differences between floresiensis and Homo sapiens.

To me, this argument bears a striking resemblance to Rudolf Virchow's misinterpretation of Neandertal fossils in the mid-1800s. Virchow, the founder of modern pathology, proclaimed the remains of Neandertals to be those of Homo sapiens suffering from severe rickets.

As Erick Trinkaus and Pat Shipman point out in their book The Neandertals:

"By proclaiming several normal Neandertal fossils to be pathological, he delayed their archaic humans until the late nineteenth century."

Based on this new interpretation of the Flores remains, it seems there is still a certain reluctance to add more branches to the human family tree.

Members of the original discovery team, however, have found additional 'hobbit' remains, including a jaw which displays the same morphological characteristics as the first one. This complicates the sceptics' argument, as they now have to invoke the occurrence of microcephaly in multiple individuals.

Did a miniature species of humans evolve on Flores, much like the pygmy elephants and other small fauna of this isolated island?

Or are these simply the pathological remains of an individual stunted by microcephaly?

Hopefully, further fieldwork will reveal the answer.

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