When a skull and several bone fragments were discovered in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004, one scientist called it "the most important find in human evolution for 100 years." The discoverers hailed it as a previously unknown and extinct human species, which they called Homo floresiensis and which were soon dubbed hobbits for their apparently small stature. Now, two new PNAS papers out this week put wind in the sails of the original skeptics; one article finds flaws in the original work, while the other lays out evidence that the skull simply belongs to someone with Down Syndrome.
The skull, called LB1, shares a few characteristics with those who have Down Syndrome today. One, there is facial asymmetry, which is common in those with the genetic disorder, and while the original findings estimated the skull and femur to be too small to belong to modern humans, new sizing estimates suggest it's actually in the range of an individual with Down who lived on one of these Indonesian islands, reports the New York Times. "Are the skeletons from Liang Bua cave sufficiently unusual to require invention of a new human species?" one researcher asked Penn State News. "Our re-analysis shows that they are not. The less strained explanation is a developmental disorder. Here the signs point rather clearly to Down Syndrome." (Meanwhile, Tibetans appear to share a rare but useful gene with extinct human cousins the Denisovans.)