Down Syndrome explains 'Hobbit human' species, says scientist | Asia Pacific

Down Syndrome explains 'Hobbit human' species, says scientist

Down Syndrome explains 'Hobbit human' species, says scientist

Updated 5 August 2014, 11:41 AEST

Officially, they called it a new, much smaller species of human:Unoffficially, it became known as the Hobbit.


At the time, the discovery of the remains of a cut down version of a human on the Indonesian island of Flores a decade ago astounded scientists.

But not everyone has accepted the conclusions.

Professor Maciej Henneberg, from the University of Adelaide, has been one of the more persistent critics.

He's published new research which has found the Hobbit had Down Syndrome, and was not a distinct species.

Interviewer: Simon Santow

Speakers: Maciej Henneberg, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Adelaide.


MACIEJ HENNEBERG: First time I expressed my opinion was on the day the discovery was announced and since then I worked on the case.

SIMON SANTOW: And Homo Florensiensis - or what is sometimes known as the Hobbit - in your view is not a new species, it's not something as significant as it has been portrayed?

MACIEJ HENNEBERG: Yes, indeed, that was my opinion from the first day. What was discovered is a scatter of fragmentary bones and only one, not quite complete but reasonably complete skeleton with a skull and lower jaw and a few limb bones. 

And this one single skull and the limb bones and a few scattered other bone fragments were used to establish a new species. And the skeleton we are talking about is dated at only 18,000 years ago, while we know that people like us - anatomically modern people - lived on the island of Flores and the rest of Indonesia for at least 40,000 years. 

So my first reaction was that this is simply a malformed modern human being and I have studied a lot of pathological specimens in skeleton samples, in skeletons, in places like Pompeii, for example and other Italian ancient sites so I'm fairly well used to diagnosing pathologies from skeletal remains.

SIMON SANTOW: And what have you found in this instance when you looked again at these bones and these remains?

MACIEJ HENNEBERG: Well, we now found after thorough analysis and comparison with about 100 various possible pathological symptoms that this skeleton is a skeleton of a person who suffered from Down's Syndrome, a fairly common developmental problem.

And we found it because this person has small - unusually small brain, very short stature but the stature is mostly short because height bones, called femora, are short, whereas feet are flat which is also a common thing in sufferers of Down's Syndrome. 

The person has a very small lower jaw with a missing chin, which is also characteristic for this syndrome. He has very weak muscle markings where the muscles attach to bone because Down's Syndrome patients have poor muscle tone, so the muscles don't work very well and don't pull bones strongly.

Also, he has a lot of periodontal disease but not much caries, and that's also a curious characteristic of people with Down's Syndrome - they have periodontal disease, quite a lot of it, but they don't develop much dental caries. 

Well, so that's why we diagnosed this person eventually as a Down's Syndrome patient.

SIMON SANTOW: So if you are right, what does that say about Homo Floresiensis, otherwise known as the Hobbit?

MACIEJ HENNEBERG: It does not exist because it was erected as a new species on grounds of this one very small brain case and a few postcranial bones, and fragments of bones of other individuals, which is not sufficient to define a new species.

Actually, the rules of taxonomy clearly state that a new species cannot be announced if the specimen was pathological.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Professor of Anatomy at the University of Adelaide, Maciej Henneberg, speaking to AM's Simon Santow.

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