Several years ago, a group of intriguing, ancient fossils were uncovered: Their bodies and skulls looked human, but they were incredibly tiny. Scientists named them Homo floresiensis, and the popular press called them Hobbits.
Now a group of American researchers says they've examined one of the Hobbit skulls in minute detail, and they are certain that the creatures were not human. Said lead researcher Karen Baab:
A skull can provide researchers with a lot of important information about a fossil species, particularly regarding their evolutionary relationships to other fossil species. The overall shape of the LB1 skull, particularly the part that surrounds the brain (neurocranium) looks similar to fossils more than 1.5 million years older from Africa and Eurasia, rather than modern humans, even though Homo floresiensis is documented from 17,000 to 95,000 years ago.
That means Homo floresiensis evolved alongside Homo sapiens, perhaps out of a common ancestor like Homo erectus. So the new species may have been an evolutionary dead end. Perhaps, like Neanderthals, the Hobbits couldn't compete with the taller Homo sapiens for food and resources.
Baab and her team determined that the species was not human by minutely examining the skull. This is a widely-accepted method of determining hominid species, but it's crucial to remember it's not the only way. As of yet, nobody has tried to sequence the DNA remaining in these fossils, the way the Max Planck Institute is doing with Neanderthal DNA. So before we start jumping up and down at the idea of another hominid species that walked Earth, let's see if we can get some genetic evidence too.