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Small Brain, Big Debate

Some Scientists Believe 18,000-Year-Old 'Hobbit' Is a New Species

Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page C16

Last year archaeologists digging in a cave on a tiny island in Indonesia made an incredible discovery. They found the skull and part of the skeleton of a woman who lived 18,000 years ago. She was only three feet tall -- about as big as your 3-year-old sister.

And even though she was 30 years old when she died, her head was only the size of a grapefruit, and her brain was only one-third as big as ours. Even so, the archaeologists saw that the woman and her people had made spear points and sharp pieces of stone good enough to hunt animals as large as Komodo dragons. The archaeologists even found the remains of miniature elephants in the cave.

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The archaeologists chose an obvious nickname for the fossil. They called her "Hobbit," like Frodo Baggins in "The Lord of the Rings," another little person with a lot of smarts.

The trouble is that in real life people with small brains aren't supposed to be smart. Scientists who study evolution have found that human ancestors got smarter as their brains got larger. But the Hobbit was different. Her brain was the size of human ancestors who lived 3 million years ago. Those people could barely walk upright, and they couldn't hunt anything.

And the really strange thing is that because the Hobbit's fossils are about 18,000 years old, scientists know that she lived -- at least for a while -- at the same time as modern humans. Until the Hobbit's discovery on Indonesia's Flores Island, scientists thought the last human ancestors were the Neanderthals, the Ice Age "cave men." The Neanderthals died out around 30,000 years ago.

So there's a fight between the scientists who discovered her and think she is a new species and other scientists who think she's a modern human with a deformity that caused her small brain. The second group think full-size modern humans killed the tiny elephants and made the tools, while the Hobbit just lived in the cave.

The archaeologists who discovered the Hobbit recently finished studying her brain. They re-created it by analyzing the way the bone was shaped on the inside of the skull -- like it was a jello mold.

They found that even though the Hobbit's brain was small, it was very sophisticated. Like the brains of modern humans, the parts of the Hobbit's brain that help reasoning were very big compared with the rest of her brain.

They said the Hobbit's brain had nothing in common with the brain of someone who had the small brain deformity. And, finally, they noted that the cave had bones from seven people, all of them small. The archaeologists said it would be unlikely that everybody on the island had the small brain deformity.

Because of all this, the archaeologists say that the Hobbit must represent a species of human ancestor unlike any other. They said Hobbit people evolved, lived and eventually became extinct because of Flores Island's isolation. The Hobbit was small because Flores didn't have much to eat, and the "little people" became smaller so they wouldn't need as much food.

-- Guy Gugliotta


© 2005 The Washington Post Company