Chasing the trail of the 'Hobbit'

Dean Falk, anthropology professor at Florida State, talks about controversial research that may indicate the existence of a new species of ancient hominid.

The unearthing of a 3-foot-tall, 18,000-year-old female hominid skeleton on a remote Indonesian island has sparked controversy since its 2003 discovery, but now there's new fuel for the prehistoric fire.

The discoverers of the fossil proposed that it belonged to a new species, dubbed Homo floresiensis. Lord of the Rings enthusiasts were captivated by the possibility of a real-life "Hobbit." But skeptics argued that the skeleton was simply a Homo sapiens with a neurological disorder called microcephaly.

Recently, Florida State University anthropology professor Dean Falk led a team of researchers through a computer-based analysis of the Hobbit brain, comparing it to those of modern humans with microcephaly. She published the results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Her verdict? The Hobbit is a new species indeed.

CNET recently spoke with Falk about brain casts, evolutionary controversies, and whether those constant Frodo Baggins references can get irritating.

Q: It occurred to me that, for ceremonial purposes, we really should have done this interview on Monday (February 12) because it was the 198th anniversary of Darwin's birth. If you had to scrawl a birthday message inside a card for him, what would it say?
Falk: You were right.

That's very poignant. Tell me, how did you initially get involved in the whole Hobbit research?
Falk: It was an incredible stroke of good luck. I was sitting in my study at home and the phone rang, and a man's voice said, "Hi, my name is David Hamlin, and I'm with the National Geographic Society." I'm on a do-not-call list, and before I could make the decision to hang up on him, he said "And I'm not selling magazines." He makes films for television for National Geographic, and what he'd wanted to talk about with me was under embargo at Nature, and the embargo had just lifted. He started to tell me about this new species that was 3 feet tall, had tools, and was hunting miniature elephant-like creatures, and at one point I said to him, "Are you making this up?"

I told National Geographic, when they wanted to film, that we needed to do this right. Not the old-fashioned way of dumping latex into the skull. This was too important.

He laughed and assured me he was not. He'd just gotten back from Indonesia. And I was in front of my computer, and pulled up Google News, and watched the story come up around the world. The reason he called was he was doing a film and wanted someone to make an endocast, which is a model of the inside of the brain case, to see what could be said about the brain of this creature, and I'd been recommended to him, and he asked if I would be willing to do this. I said, of course I would. It was one of the best things that's ever happened to me.

When you began the research that you eventually published in PNAS, what was your impression?
Falk: Well, our description of the Hobbit's virtual endocast had become controversial. Some people, including some scientists, thought that the type specimen for Hobbit was not representative of a new species but was instead a pathological human being with a condition called microcephaly, or "small brain." So we needed to address that, and that was the purpose of this paper, to answer those who were saying that Hobbit was a microcephalic. To do that, we knew that someone had to do more than just assert one way or the other, that we really needed to get some microcephalics and take a look at their brain cases and compare them to brain cases from normal people and then the brain case of Hobbit.

You've been doing a much more technological side of the research. You're looking at the brain scans. It's not, obviously, digging. What would you say, within the research that's gone into looking at this controversial Hobbit, is the breakdown between the field work and computer-based analysis?
Falk: The really important stuff is done in the field. The team over there (in Indonesia), led by Mike Morwood, had the type specimen. It had a very nice skull, and so Mike arranged for the skeleton to be CAT scanned, and he provided my team with the data. This is at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University's School of Medicine in St. Louis--the engineers there work on saving lives, doing clinical kinds of things, but there are a couple of anthropologists.

I told National Geographic, when they wanted to film, that we needed to do this right. Not the old-fashioned way of dumping latex into the skull. This was too important. What we needed to do was CAT scan it and then do virtual endocasts. It's so much more precise; you get much better data, and it's so much more reliable. I've done endocasts for 30 years now, and I've done plenty of dumping the latex into skulls, and you can get reasonable information that way, but the high-tech way is the way to go.

What is the software used, and is it specifically for anthropologists, or is it normally used in the medical profession?
Falk: There's a whole bunch of different programs, but the one for actually measuring the three-dimensional objects is called GeoMagic. It can be used for anything, like industrial design or medicine.

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