Field of Science

Hobbits perhaps not cretins

Vacation, jet lag, and deadlines all conspire to drag me away from blogging. But no more. Vacation is over, jet lag almost gone, and deadlines have been crossed. No matter.

So, remember John McWhorter's untestable hypothesis that the hobbits (H. floresiensis) were responsible for simplifying a group of Indonesian languages?

For those of us who have doubts that the hobbits were not just... well, retarded humans, new evidence leads anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University in Tallahassee to surmise that they perhaps were endowed with vamped up brains:
An analysis of the inner surface of an 18,000-year–old skull assigned to Homo floresiensis, a species also known as hobbits, indicates that this tiny individual possessed a brain blessed with souped-up intellectual capacities needed for activities such as making stone tools
From ScienceNews:
Falk compared a cast of the cranium’s inner surface, or endocast, obtained from the partial hobbit skeleton LB1 to endocasts from both modern humans and from other fossil skulls in the human evolutionary family, called hominids for short. These casts bring into relief impressions made by various anatomical landmarks on the brain’s surface.

“LB1 reveals that significant cortical reorganization was sustained in ape-sized brains of at least one hominid species,” Falk said.
One legitimate concern is that the hobbits were otherwise normal humans who suffered from cretinism: the condition of severely stunted physical and mental growth due to untreated congenital deficiency of thyroid hormones (hypothyroidism) or from prolonged nutritional deficiency of iodine.

So how can we know when all we have is fossils? Pleiotropy! The genetic mechanism - not the blog.

Why pleiotropy? Because
Low levels of thyroid production cause an array of skeletal abnormalities in cretinism, as well as dwarfism.

CT scans of LB1 show no signs of dental, skull or limb conditions associated with cretinism, [William] Jungers [of Stony Brook Health Sciences Center in New York] said. People with cretinism generally have much larger brains than that of LB1, he added.
I must admit that I am emotionally invested in the hypothesis that the hobbits weren't mere humans. Just imagine how cool it would be to meet and communicate, even, with another species. Talk about what that would do to our own image of ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution.

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