A little human with very big feet

A recent conference and a handful of publications on the diminutive hominin Homo floresiensis (a.k.a. the “hobbit”)have brought to light the difficulty of placing this fossil neatly into the human family tree. A recent study of the 18,000 year old fossil’s feet has raised many intriguing questions. The difficulty in situating this species is that it has an complex mix of both ancestral and derived traits.
The pelvis and legs all clearly demonstrate that Homo floresiensis was bipedal. However, the hominin’s feet are unusually long compared to the leg. This combination of a long foot and a relatively short leg is seen in some apes but not in hominins. The navicular acts like the keystone in the arch of the human foot and is elevated from the ground except in people who have fallen arches. In Homo floresiensis this bone has a well developed tuberosity meaning that it was in contact with the ground, like in other flat-footed great apes and early hominins. The overall shape of the foot means that this hominin would not have been able to run long distances very efficiently — a distinguishing feature of later Homo. While the hominin had a short chimp-like big toe, it was not opposable like in other hominins. The long, curved lateral toes resemble a chimpanzee’s, rather than those of a human which are short and straight. The distal first metatarsal is squared off like in modern humans but this feature is not found in other early hominins, such as Australopithecus afarensis, Paranthropus robustus or the early Homo remains from the Georgian site of Dmanisi.

It is generally thought that Homo erectus was the first hominin to leave Africa, soon after their first appearance in the archaeological record around 1.9 million years ago. Based solely on archaeological data Homo erectus seems like the best ancestor for Homo floresiensis. Homo erectus has been show to be a highly variable species. Homo floresiensis could represent a descendent of Homo erectus that adapted to island life through a dramatic decrease in size. While some of the plesiomorphic traits of Homo floresiensis may be explained through evolutionary reversals, it is unlikely to account for all of the primitive traits in the skeleton as a whole. It has been suggested that the ancestor of Homo floresiensis was not Homo erectus but rather a more primitive hominin. The 1.8 million year old skeletal Homo remains from Dmanisiare relatively primitive. At first glance, this species might seem like a good ancestral candidate for Homo floresiensis. However, unlike Homo floresiensis, the Dmanisi specimens have quite modern limb proportions. Homo habilis has also been forwarded as a possible candidate although there is little archaeological evidence to suggest that that species ever left Africa. Until further evidence comes along, the jury is out on this miniature human.

Reference cited
Jungers et al. The foot of Homo floresiensis. Nature 459, 81-84 (7 May 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature07989

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Above photo modified from original by Mamoritai under creative commons license.

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