Hobbit Limbo?

Last month saw the bombshell report that a tiny species of hominid lived on an Indonesian island 18,000 years ago. Since then there has been a dribbling of follow-up news. Some American paleoanthropologists have expressed skepticism, pointing out that while bones from several small individuals have been found, only one skull has turned up. The skull was the most distinctive part of the skeleton, with a minuscule brain and other features that suggested it was not closely related to our own species. The skeptics suggest that these hominids were actually modern human pygmies, and that the skull came from an individual who suffered a genetic disorder called microcephaly.

In Friday’s issue of Science, Michael Balter reports that a prominent Indonesian anthropologist, Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University, thinks Homo floresiensis was a microcephalic. He has taken possession of the fossils to study them, and this has a number of researchers worried. Jacob is known to guard fossils in his vault, and so he may essentially be making it impossible for other researchers to look at them. Balter quotes one of the authors of the original report on the fossils, Peter Brown of the University of New England in Australia, saying, "I doubt that the material will ever be studied again."

This could be staggeringly tragic, because the world is waiting for the other shoe to drop: is there any DNA in the fossils?

The fossils are so young that they might well contain some genetic fragments, and this DNA could quickly resolve the debate over which species the bones belong to. If they belong to human pygmies, their DNA should be more similar to the DNA of Australian aborigines or Southeast Asians than to Europeans or Africans. But if, as Brown and his colleagues suggest, they belong to a species that branched off from an Asian population of Homo erectus, then their DNA should not be particularly close to any living human’s genes. Most evidence indicates that Homo erectus in Asia shares a common ancestor with Homo sapiens that lived two million years ago. It might even be possible to compare Homo floresiensis DNA to the fragments of Neanderthal DNA that have come to light in recent years. If Brown is right, then Neanderthal DNA should be more similar to human DNA than that of Homo floresiensis, because Neanderthals and humans share a common ancestor that lived roughly 500,000 years ago–four times younger than the ancestor we share with Homo erectus.

According to an Australian newspaper, Brown and his colleagues have found hair that may belong to H. floresiensis, and which may contain DNA. But if that turns out to be a dead end, the next best hope will be the fossils. And the biggest challenge in finding fossil hominid DNA is contamination. You don’t want to accidentally grab DNA from a lab assistant’s thumbprint. If the Homo floresiensis goes down a bureaucratic rabbit hole, that challenge could become enormous.