Or perhaps too good to be true. From the start, skeptical anthropologists raised questions about the Flores team's claims. Did the remains found on Flores really belong to a special race of tiny humans? Now, in a paper published in the latest issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), experts from the U.S., Indonesia and Australia have dashed cold water on the hobbit hypothesis. Based on their first-hand examination of the bones, the scientists concluded that Flores man isn't a member of a distinct human species. They claim instead that the specimen is the remains of an unfortunate pygmy with a form of microcephaly, a developmental disorder that shrinks the head and brain. Homo floresiensis "are just like hobbits," sniffs archaeologist Alan Thorne, one of the authors of the PNAS paper. "They're the products of someone's imagination."
The controversy arises from differing interpretations of a key piece of evidence: a single, almost complete female skull unearthed in the Flores cave. According to the PNAS researchers, the effects of microcephaly are evident in the asymmetric shape of the tiny skull. They claim, too, that the features of the skull cited as evidence that it belonged to a separate species?such as a nearly absent chin?can be found in modern Flores pygmies. The fact that pygmies can still be found living just down the road from the original excavation site helped clinch the argument for Robert Eckhardt, a developmental geneticist at Pennsylvania State University and a PNAS paper co-author. "If you look throughout the area, there are plenty of populations where the average male is under a meter and a half and females are shorter," he says. "If the people there are short now, so were the people who lived there 20,000 years ago."
But the authors of the Nature article?Peter Brown and Michael Morwood, both of the University of New England in Australia?aren't backing down. In an e-mail, Brown told TIME that the PNAS paper "provides absolutely no evidence that the unique combination of features found in Homo floresiensis are found in any modern human." He argues that the asymmetry in the skull was due not to disease but to the skeleton being buried for thousands of years in 30 feet of sediment, which deformed the fossil. (Thorne insists the deformity must have happened before death.) Henry Gee, a senior editor at Nature who was responsible for overseeing publication of the original Flores article, calls the PNAS paper "very interesting" but argues that it "cherry-picks the evidence" to support the microcephaly theory. Ultimately, he says, "I don't think the new work dents the contention that Homo floresiensis is a new species of human."
That may be the most restrained comment anyone involved in the dispute has so far uttered. After Brown was quoted in Discover magazine in January saying that Eckhardt was "thick as a plank," Eckhardt attended a scientific meeting in which he took off his shirt and had his wife measure his chest. "We were able to establish to the satisfaction of the audience of 300 people that I was in fact thicker than two short planks," he says. Brown also accused Teuku Jacob, the lead author of the PNAS paper and one of Indonesia's most respected anthropologists, of damaging the fossils while they were in his possession for several months last year; and Morwood claims Jacob used his influence with the Indonesian government to block further excavations at the site. Jacob has denied his rivals' accusations and his colleague Thorne defends him, remarking, "This is a very senior academic. This is not some guy off the street stealing bones."
Such feuds aren't surprising, perhaps. After all, as Thorne says, "There are more human evolutionists than there are fossils to go along with them." And the argument isn't likely to be settled soon. DNA tests of the skeleton might prove conclusively that it's from a modern human, but DNA doesn't last long in the tropics, so any effort to recover genetic material is likely to fail. Meanwhile, the search for additional fossil evidence is on hold because Jakarta has barred further excavations at the site where the hobbit was found. For now, he remains in scientific limbo, half way between myth and man.