Ten years ago researchers announced the discovery of an ancient human that resembled Bilbo Baggins more than any modern human. Understandably dubbed the “Hobbit,” the remains were found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores—a long, skinny parcel of land about halfway between Australia and Asia.
Two new studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, are taking issue with the original findings. According to them, Bilbo was just an unlucky loser of the genetic lottery, not a fanciful new species of hominid.
Bilbo wasn’t a hobbit; Bilbo had Down syndrome.
A reanalysis of the skull and femur found in the cave—the only two useful bones found from the hobbit specimen—has revealed that the original projections of their size was a bit low. The brain was likely larger than originally deduced, putting it within range of modern humans afflicted with the genetic disorder.
What’s more, when you forecast likely height based on the femur’s length based on normal growth rather than an African pygmy population, as was originally done, the proposed height comes out to just over four feet rather than a mere three and a half. And just over four feet is also well within the range of humans now living on Flores and in surrounding areas.
But the nail in the coffin might be the asymmetry of the discovered skull. The original study attributed these factors to the small but important nuance that it had been buried for tens of thousands of years. But the new study suggests perhaps that’s really the way the skull was—yet another common characteristic of Down syndrome.
Actually, I take that back. The nail in the coffin is that none of the other remains found along with the hobbit skeleton were hobbit-like at all.
“This work is not presented in the form of a fanciful story, but to test a hypothesis: Are the skeletons from Liang Bua cave sufficiently unusual to require invention of a new human species?” said Robert Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolution at Penn State, who was involved in the study. “Our reanalysis shows that they are not. The less strained explanation is a developmental disorder. Here the signs point rather clearly to Down syndrome, which occurs in more than one per thousand human births around the world.”
Yeah, I’d say it’s probably more likely that they found a rare case of Down syndrome remains—which affects one out of every 691 births in the United States—rather than a brand new hobbit species.
So sorry folks, but no unusual hobbit-like species here in this corner of the world.
I did, however, read another interesting hypothesis. Haven’t you Lord of the Rings fans out there always wondered why Gandalf didn’t just take the ring to Mount Doom on the back of an eagle? I mean, they basically save the day at the end of both the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings.
What if that was actually his plan all along? What if he was secretly pushing the Fellowship north toward the eagles’ home in the hopes of jumping on one of their backs? Was Gandalf really that fond of alliteration, or was his final words in Moria a suggestion of his intentions rather than a generalized order to get the hell out of there?
“Fly you fools.”
Then again, if an eagle could be summoned to Isengard with nothing but a whisper to a moth, you’d think that the eagles would be willing to come pick them up outside of Rivendell and spare the journey through the Misty Mountains. So instead, I’d like to amend the theory.
Perhaps Gandalf suddenly realized he had underestimated the difficulty of the task at hand? Or perhaps he thought that Frodo was incapable of making the journey without a wizard by his side? If it was a suggestion of flight, I think it would have had to have been a last second realization.
But what do I know? Either way, flying would have made for a pretty boring book.
The papers, “Evolved developmental homeostasis disturbed in LB1 from Flores, Indonesia, denotes Down syndrome and not diagnostic traits of the invalid species Homo floresiensis,” and, “Rare events in earth history include the LB1 human skeleton from Flores, Indonesia, as a developmental singularity, not a unique taxon,” were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Eckhardt; Maciej Henneberg, professor of anatomy and pathology at the University of Adelaide; and Kenneth Hsü, a Chinese geologist and paleoclimatologist.