New interpretation of extinct ‘Hobbit’ species reveals a human-like face

Australian anthropologist Susan Hayes from the University of Wollongong has completed the first ever forensic facial reconstruction of Homo floresiensis, an extinct human relative that lived on the island of Flores as early as 17,000 years ago. And perhaps surprisingly, her interpretation reveals a face that was startlingly human. This species, which measured only three feet (one meter) in height and weighed about 70 pounds (32 kilograms), would have been very Hobbit-like indeed.

Hayes, who has a background in forensic science, completed the 2D reconstruction using high-resolution 3D imaging and CT scan data obtained from a female floresiensis skull found in the Liang Bua cave in Flores. The data was fed into a computer graphic program, allowing Hayes to create a virtual model of the skull. From there, Hayes was able to reconstruct the facial features.

New interpretation of extinct ‘Hobbit’ species reveals a human-like faceS

Interestingly, Hayes also referenced the work of other paleo-artists — many of which were dominated by monkey features. Hayes's interpretation, on the other hand, suggests something a bit more human-like.

Looking at the reconstruction, floresiensis featured a wide face, a short chin, and a small forehead (which shouldn't be entirely surprising given that its brain was a third of the size of our own).

"She's not what you'd call pretty, but she is definitely distinctive," said Hayes.

Writing in Scientific American, Kate Wong explains the significance to anthropology:

[The Flores hobbit's] proportions are completely out of whack with what scientists expected to see in a human species that lived so recently in the grand scheme of things and instead call to mind much earlier human precursors such as Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived more than three million years ago. Thus experts have been debating the hobbits' place in the family tree ever since the bones were unveiled in 2004.

One intriguing theory holds that the hobbits may indicate that human ancestors left Africa far earlier than previously supposed. Conventional wisdom holds that the australopithecines never made it out of the mother land, leaving it to taller, larger-brained Homo to colonize the rest of the old world. But maybe, some researchers have suggested, the hobbits were a remnant population of australopithecine that made it out of Africa early on. That would help explain the creature's short stature and small brain, among other primitive features.

Hayes's work was recently presented at the Australian Archaeological Conference being held from December 9 to 13 at the University of Wollongong. While interesting, it's important to note that Hayes's reconstruction has yet to be accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal (which is not to suggest that it won't).

Images: Susan Hayes.