Ancient Bones of Hobbits found in Palau

on March 15, 2008

“Thousands” of human bones have been unearthed on the Pacific island Palau, reports National Geographic News. The bones belonged to “numerous individuals,” some of whom were “of particularly small size.” More hobbits, perhaps?

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The remains date from less than a millennium ago to almost a millennium BC and “align with Homo sapiens,” reports a paper on the discovery published in PLoS One.

As for the distribution of the remains, the National Geographic News story explains,

Two sets of human bones were found in the Palauan caves. The most recent remains were found near the entrance to one of the caves and appear normal in size. Older bones found deeper in the caves are stranger and much smaller.

The “stranger” bones “exhibit several traits considered primitive, or archaic, for the human lineage.” In addition, they are from people who were only 3 to 4 feet (94–120cm) tall and weighed between 70 and 90 pounds (32–41 kg). This has of course prompted comparisons to the “hobbits” discovered in Indonesia in 2003 (see “The Return of the Hobbits”)—though the estimated size of these hobbits’ brains is twice that of the Indonesian hobbits.

Paleoanthropologists are also leaning toward the Homo sapiens classification for these bones, based especially on the shape of the face and the hips. Yet the humans had some abnormalities: lack of chins, deep jaws, large teeth, and small eye sockets, in addition to their tiny size.

Here’s where it gets interesting: some of these same abnormal features were reasons why the hobbits from Indonesia were classified as a unique and “archaic” species, the article reports. (See The Return of the Hobbits for a background of the hobbits and the previous twist, which was hot news just last week.)

The National Geographic News article explains, “[T]he Palauan remains suggest these features may just be a consequence of insular dwarfism, a shrinking process that some scientists attribute to the stresses of a small island environment.” The article adds that fishing probably began on the island about the same time the oldest of the larger human bones are from, buttressing the claim that poor nutrition, along with the climate, absence of predators, small population, and genetics, was responsible for strange skeletons of the earlier occupants.

Disease is also still frequently mentioned as an explanation for some of the abnormalities of the Indonesian hobbits—in particular, microcephaly, a disease that causes small brains and other abnormalities.

As Peter Galling wrote in “The Return of the Hobbits”:

Starting with the biblical worldview, it becomes clear that the hominid fossils we unearth are—time and time again—either slight variations of modern humans (such as Neanderthals who hunted, used tools, made art and fire, and buried their dead) or simply extinct apes (such as australopithecines, who would look to any modern observer like another type of chimpanzee).

There is ample evidence that the hobbits on both Palau and on the Indonesian island of Flores are, while small, nonetheless completely human, and deformities can be explained by genetic and environmental factors we are well aware of. For now, though, the debate over the hobbits will likely rage on.

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