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True Identity of Ancient ‘Hobbit’ Species May Have Been Found

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Thanks to author J. R. R. Tolkien and filmmaker Peter Jackson, just about everyone knows what a Hobbit is and many people wish they could meet one. Of course, these are the imaginary humanoids about half the size of humans, not the real archaic humans Homo luzonensis and Homo floresiensi, the tiny hominids nicknamed ‘hobbits’ that lived on the islands of Luzon and Flores in southeast Asia until about 50,000 years ago – which means they could have met early humans. Based on the amount of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA modern humans carry, it could also mean that these early humans could have had sex with the hobbits. Did they? A new study set out to find out, and in the process revealed more about the mysterious rumored ‘southern Denisovans’.

No, not this kind of hobbit

“There are no ‘first-hand’ genomes of the kind we have from Neanderthals and Denisovans, but there are ‘second-hand’ bits of DNA in the Denisovan genomes that seem to come from them having interbred with a super-archaic population. These can be recognised by their greater-than-average divergence within the genome and also, if there has been recent interbreeding, the strands of DNA will have been shuffled up less, and hence found in larger and more ‘pristine’ chunks.”

The new study, co-authored by anthropologist Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London and published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, points out that there is no DNA from Homo luzonensis and Homo floresiensi but previous research of Neanderthals and Denisovans has helped researchers identify evidence of interbreeding between species. Because their existence overlapped with humans on the islands in southern Asia, Springer told Gizmodo he and the team believed they’d find that evidence.

“Conversely, we found no evidence that the ancestors of present-day Island Southeast Asia populations interbred with either of the two hominin species for which we do have fossil evidence in this region: H. floresiensis from Flores, Indonesia, and H. luzonensis from Luzon in the Philippines.”

In an article in The Conversation, study lead João Teixeira from the University of Adelaide gives the disappointing result of the research – no sex. However, this means that these two hobbits may actually be related to a different missing link – the mysterious ‘southern Denisovans’. They’re considered mysterious because no Denisovan fossils have been found on the islands despite a high concentration of their DNA in modern inhabitants. Even with the lure of sex, it’s a long, cold journey north from Island Southeast Asia to Siberia, where their namesake Denisova Cave is. Teixeira thinks this means their fossils might be on another island — Sulawesi, where stone tools have been found, and Australia are two possibilities.

Where’s the hobbit women?

“Alternatively, we may need to rethink our interpretation of the hominin fossils already discovered in Island Southeast Asia.”

“But perhaps Denisovans were much more diverse in size and shape than we realised, meaning we might conceivably have found them in Island Southeast Asia already but labelled them with a different name.”

In other words, H. floresiensis and H. luzonensis could be misidentified hobbit Denisovans. And most importantly, there could have been plenty of hobbit-human sex – we just haven’t found the fossils yet.

Who knew paleoanthropology could be so erotic?

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