Hobbits may live in the pages of a J.R.R. Tolkien book, but they never walked the earth, according to a new report co-written by a Kansas University professor.
KU anthropology professor David Frayer and an international team of scientists have debunked claims that 18,000-year-old remains found on the Indonesian island of Flores belonged to a previously undiscovered species of little people, nicknamed hobbits.
Their research appears in the current issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Literature is a wonderful thing and science is a wonderful thing - but not all literature is science," Penn State University professor Robert Eckhardt said.
Uncovered in 2004, the remains of a woman's skull and part of the skeleton fueled a sort of frenzy in scientific circles and beyond.
The woman was about three feet tall with a head the size of a grapefruit.
Additional uncovered remains pointed not to one abnormal person, but an entirely new species - a story so good you could make a movie out of it.
The new species, said to have survived alongside Homo sapiens for thousands of years, was named Homo floresiensis.
Many proclaimed that the findings had broad implications for evolution and science. And some began to consider the existence of leprechauns or other small imaginative creatures.
But according to the researchers who penned the latest report, the earlier work was wrong and the skeletal remains point not to a new species, but to a genetically flawed relative of modern human pygmies.
"The appeal of finding a hobbit - just naming it a hobbit and the cuteness of it - got in the way of a serious, critical evaluation," Frayer said.
Frayer worked with researchers from Penn State University and institutions in China, Australia and Indonesia. The team laid out several conclusions in its report.
Original assumptions had held that ancestors traveled to the island about 840,000 years ago and evolved into Homo floresiensis and maintained there was no later human migration to the island until after the species died out.
But the new report refutes that claim and points to the arrival of pygmy elephants on the island two separate times. It also states that the island was linked to nearby islands and separated from others by only a few kilometers during times of low sea levels.
Frayer studied the features of the supposed hobbit's skull and found significant points of asymmetry - evidence of an abnormality rather than a new species, he said. One cheek bone was lower than the other. One eye orbit, too, was lower than the other.
He melded together two left sides and two right sides of the face, creating two new faces - the images showing how different the two sides of the face are.
The new reports indicates the supposed hobbit had some form of microcephaly, a medical condition in which the circumference of the head is smaller than normal.
Original team's errors
The new report also points out how the original team erred in comparing the skeleton to humans in other regions of the world, mainly Europe, rather than compare it to humans in its own region.
The new team found the supposed hobbit actually shares many key features in the face, head, teeth and skeleton with pygmies that live on the island today.
"I think the case for a totally new species was very, very weak from the beginning," said Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology at Penn State. "There were so many red flags when we first read the papers. All of these, when we looked at the primary evidence, became all the more confirmed."
Some, including Frayer, point to researchers, the media and those who enthusiastically embraced the idea.
"It was taken very uncritically because many people wanted to believe it," Eckhardt said.
As for why the public should believe the new report, Eckhardt said: "The body of evidence that we present should be overwhelmingly persuasive."
But the team anticipates critics of their report and that it will take time to convince some.
"There's going to be a firestorm," Frayer said. "It's already begun."