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Assembled “Hobbit” foot reveals long, curved toes. (Credit: Djuna Ivereigh/ARKENAS)

STONY BROOK (US)—J.R.R. Tolkien may not have been so creative after all when he created Bilbo Baggins and the rest of the inhabitants of Middle-earth. New findings add weight to the argument that the so-called “Hobbit” represents a separate species and not a deformed modern human.

Research on the feet of Homo floresiensis—the diminutive hominin that roamed Indonesia some 18,000 years ago—could help settle the debate.

Stony Brook University’s William Jungers has closely analyzed Hobbit anatomy, documenting its unusual combination of ape-like and human-like foot features, which clearly enabled bipedal walking—a hallmark of all humans and their extinct relatives (hominins)—despite its surprisingly primitive design. Jungers led a team of international scientists that authored the study reported in the May 7 issue of Nature. Their work provides further evidence that the ancestor of this species was perhaps not Homo erectus but instead another more primitive and remote hominin.

“A foot like this one has never been seen before in the human fossil record,” says Jungers, distinguished teaching professor and chair of the department of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook. “Our analysis offers the most complete glimpse to date of how a primitive bipedal foot was designed and differed from that of later hominins and modern humans.”

The authors point out that while the Hobbit foot has an overall structure that signals bipedal walking, it appears to have been “flat-footed” and poorly designed for running, one of the critical pedal features believed to characterize human ancestors since the time of Homo erectus.

“Arches are the hallmark of a modern human foot,” explains coauthor William E. H. Harcourt-Smith of the American Museum of Natural History. “This is another strong piece of the evidence that the ‘hobbit’ was not like us.”

The authors also suggest that despite these feet being dated to the Late Pleistocene age (17,000 years ago), their features—together with many other parts of the H. floresiensis skeleton—might represent the primitive condition for our own genus Homo. This could imply a dispersal event out of Africa earlier than what paleoanthropologists have long thought.

“These particular ‘Hobbit’ feet may have never walked into Mordor, (the fictional universe of Tolkien’s novels) but they certainly remind us how little we know about which other hominin species walked out of Africa and the many possible places their feet helped take them,” adds coauthor Matthew Tocheri, of the Smithsonian Institution.

Jungers points out that “if the feet and skeleton of the ‘Hobbits’ are instead the result of ‘island dwarfing’ from the Southeast Asian Homo erectus as some scientists suspect, then an amazing number of evolutionary reversals to primitive conditions had to occur as an unexplained and unprecedented by-product.”

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