Monday, July 17, 2006

 

The hullabaloo about hobbits

Appropriately enough for a story about 'hobbits,' many of the details sound like something out of a fairy tale: Once upon a time, a race of little people lived on a distant island, hunting elephants and dodging dragons in a 'Lost World' wiped out by a disastrous volcanic eruption. But 'Once upon a time' is at least 12,000 years ago in this case, the pachyderms were an extinct pygmy variety and the dragons were Komodo dragons, Varanus komodoensis, the biggest lizards in the world. And the 'hobbits,' were Homo floresiensis, a remarkable human species whose remains were found on Indonesian island of Flores about three years ago.

As reported by the discovery team led by Michael Morwood of Australia's University of New England and Tony Djubiantono of the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology, the hobbits stood about three feet tall, and had surprisingly small brains for critters that seemed to have scattered tools around Liang Bua cave on Flores. Flores suffered a massive volcanic eruption around 12,000 years ago. That may have wiped the creatures out but they have become the stuff of legend, with islanders telling stories about the little people who once lived there.

First reported in the journal Nature, the vituperation among paleontologists surrounding the hobbit discovery has been almost as remarkable as the hobbits themselves.

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