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ScienceShot: The Shrinking of the Hobbit's Brain

Where do Hobbits come from? No, not the little humanoids in the J. R. R. Tolkien books, but Homo floresiensis, the 1-meter-tall human with the chimp-sized brain that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores between 90,000 and 13,000 years ago. There are two main hypotheses: either the creature downsized from H. erectus, a human ancestor that lived in Africa and Asia and that is known to have made it to Flores about 800,000 years ago and may have shrunk when it got there—a case of so-called "insular dwarfism" often seen in other animals that get small when they take up residence on islands. Or it evolved from an even earlier, smaller-brained ancestor, such as the early human H. habilis or an australopithecine like Lucy, that somehow made it to Flores from Africa. The insular dwarfism hypothesis had fallen out of favor recently, however, because many researchers thought that the Hobbit's brain, often estimated at 400 cubic centimeters in volume, was too small to have evolved from the larger H. erectus brain, which was at least twice as big. But a new study, published online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, finds from CT scans of the Hobbit's brain that it was actually about 426 cubic centimeters in volume. The team calculates that this is big enough to make the island dwarfism hypothesis considerably more plausible once the body size differences between the Hobbit and H. erectus—which was nearly twice as tall—are adjusted for.

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