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6 March 2005
Critics silenced by scans of 'hobbit' skull

A brain scan of the Homo floresiensis - nicknamed 'Hobbit' and found in Indonesia last year - appears to have settled a scientific dispute as to whether the creature was indeed a new member of the human family or just an unfortunate suffering a congenital brain disease. The Hobbit's remains, which were found last year on the Indonesian island of Flores, were shown to be about 18,000 years old and were thought to herald a discovery that could, if proved, force a rethink of human evolution.
     An Indonesian anthropologist, Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University, claimed that, far from being a new species, Homo floresiensis was a person suffering from the congenital brain disease microcephaly. Professor Jacob then locked away the remains and refused access to other scientists. But he subsequently returned the fossils to Indonesia's Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta. A team led by Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee performed the scan of the creature's skull. Professor Falk said the lining of the skull suggested the brain of Homo floresiensis was capable of the higher thought patterns characteristic of humans. "I thought the Homo floresiensis brain would look like a chimp's. I was wrong," he said.
     Professor Richard Roberts of Wollongong University in Australia, a member of the original discovery team, said that the brain scan of the skull now settles the matter. "In a nutshell, I think it shows that the Hobbit was certainly not a microcephalic. In fact, of all the brains they compared it against, the Hobbit's brain was least like that of a microcephalic," Professor Roberts said. The hobbit's frontal lobe - the area of the brain responsible for intelligent behaviour - is extremely well-developed. "This explains how the one-metre tall Hobbit could have made such sophisticated stone tools, made ocean crossings, hunted [pygmy] elephants and other activities that require deep thought and social organisation," Professor Roberts said.
     Professor Falk said the images revealed that the brain of H. floresiensis was quite different from apes and other humans. "The scaling of brain to body isn't at all what we'd expect to find in pygmies, and the shape is all wrong to be a microcephalic. This is something new," he said.
     Despite some advanced features, LB1's brain is in other ways intriguingly primitive. The ratio of brain size to body size in H. floresiensis is more similar to that of the australopithecines than to what one would expect if Homo erectus were miniaturised. Hominid brain specialist Ralph Holloway, of Columbia University in New York, US said the team should have tried to get hold of an individual with a more generalised condition called nanocephaly. "They've made a convincing case for ruling out pathology to 95% confidence. But I think if they had extended their sample, it would have been more interesting," he explained. Robert Eckhardt, of Penn State University, US, and a member of the group of researchers that believes LB1 was a microcephalic, said the team's work did not sway the disease theory.

Sources: BBC News, Nature, New Scientist (3 march 2005), The Independent, Medical News Today (4 March 2005)

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