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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 News.com 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.

Once you have your virtual endocast using this GeoMagic, you can manipulate it, turn it, slice it, dice it, take all kinds of measurements including volume measurements.

Obviously the Hobbit has gotten a lot of press. What would you say is the most common error that the press makes on covering this story?
Falk: That's an easy one for me. I've talked to quite a bit of media since the PNAS article came out. The error is that some people focus so much on the sensationalist aspects of the controversy itself and not enough on the techniques that were used. Many of them don't read the research itself. I've had people call me up for a phone interview, and at some point I'll say, "Well, on page such-and-such," and they'll say, "Oh, well, I haven't seen the paper." All they've picked up is something like Reuters.

On the topic of the media, was this nicknamed the Hobbit by the people who discovered it or by the press and public who picked up on it?
Falk: My impression is that it's the people who discovered it. That's common for discoverers to do that. They all nickname their finds.

What's your impression of the quickness of the media and public to pick up on this and call it the Hobbit and connect it to Lord of the Rings?
Falk: Well, that's cute. It doesn't bother me, and it's good that the name makes it more accessible. I teach big anthropology courses with a couple hundred kids, and there are a lot of big Latin names, so they appreciate the nicknames. It makes it easier for the public and the students to really get a grip. So it doesn't bother me, and it's sort of fun. But the important stuff is the specimen itself and what its place will be once things kind of sift out and we get more discoveries.

Whenever you find a new fossil, the big question is whether or not it really is a different species. Until we get a time machine, we just can't do the obvious test to see if they can interbreed.

Do you think that there are more human species yet to be discovered?
Falk: Oh, yes. When you say 'species,' that's a tough one because, whenever you find a new fossil, the big question is whether or not it really is a different species. Until we get a time machine, we just can't do the obvious test to see if they can interbreed (the defining characteristic of a species). So you have different styles in approaching the fossil record. There are some people who see oodles of species, and some people who are more conservative. This discovery makes me think that there are a lot of very interesting things out there, including (Hobbit's) ancestors. People will be hunting now. They'll be hunting in the field, and they'll also be hunting in museum drawers. Often, when you have a discovery like this, people will go back and look in old dusty drawers and find something.

Human evolution stories really, really hit it big among the public like almost no other kind of science or technology story can. Why do you think that is?
Falk: Everybody's interested in "Where did I come from?" This is in the big sense--where did we come from? I just think it's intrinsically interesting. But also right now, we've got in this country the whole creationism debate, and so there are political, religious and sociological forces there also. There's some more tension in that discussion about "Where did I come from?" than there would be otherwise. You've got a confluence of things going on.

What do you think, specifically, can Homo floresiensis, or the Hobbit, tell us about us?
Falk: As for us Homo sapiens today, I'm not sure of a specific answer, but if you mean about the broader picture of human evolution and our place within it, what the Hobbit suggests is a total surprise. Nobody thought that there was any other species of human living as recently as 12,000 years ago. Hobbit herself is 18,000.

In terms of brain evolution, what my team has found from the brain case is that this creature had a really tiny brain--a third of the size of the modern brain--but a very advanced brain that was rewired. That says something about the whole debate of whether brain size or the organization of the brain is more important. The tools that are associated with these finds, and fire, suggest that it was a sophisticated brain--small but sophisticated. That suggests the bigger picture of the range of possibilities of how to evolve a better brain over time just got wider. Who knows what else we'll find out there?