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The row over whether 3ft-tall "Hobbits" once walked the Earth takes a new twist today with a claim that they were actually pygmies and not a new species of human.
The Flores hominid was hailed as a new species of human
Prof Mike Morwood, of the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia, made headlines worldwide when he and his team announced the discovery of 18,000-year-old remains of Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores.
The hominid, nicknamed the Hobbit after the diminutive people in JRR Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings, was thought to be an entirely new species of human, with a brain about the size of a chimpanzee's.
But today a joint Indonesian, Australian and American team publishes the most detailed critique to date, arguing that the skeletal remains found in Liang Bua Cave on Flores do not represent a new species as claimed two years ago, but some of the ancestors of modern human pygmies who live on the island today.
Prof Teuku Jacob, of Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia, who became embroiled in a dispute over whether he was holding on to the Hobbit bones after the initial discovery, claims that there are four lines of evidence where the 2004 evaluation is wrong. He reports today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with colleagues.
Geographically, Flores had at least two migrations of ancient pygmy elephants from nearby islands, making it highly unlikely that ancestral humans arrived only once and remained in isolation - a key prerequisite for a dwarf variety to evolve.
Also, the island was not large enough to have supported isolated hunter-gatherers with a population adequate enough to maintain genetic diversity for long-term survival, the team says. The Liang Bua skeletons' structures also appear to fall within the range of Homo sapiens variation, though are of small stature.
On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why."
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 163, to W.H. Auden, dated 1955
This is Tolkien's own account of his invention of the word 'hobbit', while marking School Certificate papers: he gives no date, but from the clues he gives, this most likely happened one summer in the late 1920's. This, then, is one of the most significant doodles in the history of literature: without it, there would have been no Hobbit, and without The Hobbit no Lord of the Rings, and without The Lord of the Rings, surely no Silmarillion. If not for those ten scrawled words, the world might never have heard of J.R.R. Tolkien.
On the face of it, the origins of 'hobbit' are easy to explain: a bored academic invents an amusing little word 'from nowhere' and jots it down. As the word became well known, though, debates began about its origins. Some doubt was even cast on whether Tolkien had invented the word himself. Probably of more importance to Tolkien himself, though, was the history of 'hobbit' within his universe, and we'll address this question first.