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(BBC)-The tiny skeletal remains of human "Hobbits" found on an Indonesian island belong to a completely new branch of our family tree, a study has found.
The finds caused a sensation when they were announced to the world in 2004.
In the new study, Dean Falk, of Florida State University, and her colleagues say the remains are those of a completely separate human species: Homo floresiensis.
The remains at the centre of the Hobbit controversy were discovered at Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, in 2003.
Researchers found one near-complete skeleton, which they named LB1, along with the remains of at least eight other individuals.
The specimens were nicknamed Hobbits after the tiny creatures in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The researchers believe the 1m-tall (3ft) people evolved from an unknown small-bodied, small-brained ancestor, which they think became small in stature to cope with the limited supply of food on the island.
The little humans are thought to have survived until about 12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption devastated the region.
LB1 possessed a brain size of around 400 cubic cm (24 cu inches) - about the same as that of a chimp.
Long arms, a sloping chin and other primitive features suggested affinities to ancient human species such as Homo habilis.
Professor Falk's analysis used the skulls of 10 normal humans, nine microcephalics, one dwarf and the Hobbit.
The dwarf's brain fell into the microcephalic category, while the Hobbit brain fell into the normal group - despite its small size.
In other ways, however, the Hobbit brain is unique, which is consistent with its attribution to a new species.
Archaeologists had found sophisticated tools and evidence of a fire near the remains of the 1m-tall adult female.
"People refused to believe that someone with that small of a brain could make the tools," said Professor Falk.
She said the Hobbit brain was nothing like that of a microcephalic and was advanced in a way that is different from living humans.
A previous study of LB1's endocast revealed that large parts of the frontal lobe and other anatomical features were consistent with higher cognitive processes.
"LB1 has a highly evolved brain," said Professor Falk. "It didn't get bigger, it got rewired and reorganised, and that's very interesting."
In September last year, Professor Teuku Jacob and colleagues published a scientific study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which claimed the Hobbit showed similarities to living pygmies and to microcephalics.
However, a different analysis by Australian researchers, published last year in the Journal of Human Evolution, supported the idea that LB1 was a creature new to science.
The Hobbit has forced a re-think of human evolution
A second skull would be especially helpful. Critics of the new species theory have latched onto the Hobbit's measly 400-cubic-centimeter brain as a sure sign of an abnormality called microcephaly in which the brain does not reach normal size. Some prominent advocates of a human Hobbit say that a second skull could settle the debate. "It's the acid test," says primatologist Robert Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago, who contends that the existing Hobbit skull is a malformed human skull. If he is correct, a second skull would be closer to 1,000 cubic centimeters, he says.
According to Richards, if the Hobbit specimen is truly a dwarf, it would not have been the only one. Thanks to inbreeding, "significant numbers of individuals would have been present in the population that shared the same condition, so multiple individuals are to be expected," he says. Evolutionary biologist Robert Eckhardt of Pennsylvania State University, a proponent of the pathological view, says he would take another pea-brained Hobbit as sign of a hereditary deformity, given the existence of human families in which microcephaly was passed down through several generations.
Despite LB1's having brain shape features that sort it with normal humans rather than microcephalics, other shape features and its small brain size are consistent with its assignment to a separate species.