The chance discovery of an enormous chamber beneath the Indonesian cave where hobbit-like creatures were discovered promises to settle the debate about who — or what — the tiny creatures were.
Scientists are confident the mystery will be solved if they can extract DNA from "hobbit" remains they expect to find among the rubble of 32,000- to 80,000-year-old bones and stone tools littering the cavern floor.
"Well, well, well, well, well; this will settle the matter," said Colin Groves, a physical anthropologist at the Australian National University in Canberra.
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He said obtaining a "CSI"-style DNA profile of the three-foot-tall creatures — tentatively named Homo floresiensis — would prove conclusively if they were members of a new human species, as their discoverers claimed, or deformed modern people, as alleged by skeptics.
The original hobbit remains, found four years ago, have so far failed to yield any DNA.
The Australian learned of the new chamber and its DNA potential Monday, just as international scientists reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they had compared a series of normal and abnormal human skulls with that of the hobbit and found that the hobbit was not an abnormal modern human.
The unexpected discovery of a chamber in the Flores island cave was made last year by an Australian-Indonesian team — led by ANU paleoclimatologist Mike Gagan — while they were investigating ancient climates.
An expert caver assisting in sample retrieval rappelled down a 75-foot-long sinkhole, inaccessible to the original team, at the back of Liang Bua Cave and found the chamber.
"I'd be very surprised if hobbits didn't fall down there," said archeologist Mike Morwood, co-leader of the team that discovered the hobbits.
"If they get [uncontaminated] bone and DNA out of there, it would be mind-boggling," said Professor Morwood, of Wollongong University.
According to Dr Gagan, they found bones of numerous species, from stegodons [an ancient species of elephant] and giant rats to pigs and primates. Many showed evidence of butchery.
"The bones are also in pristine condition," he said.
Dr Gagan said he and his Indonesian colleagues surveyed just the top two inches of a 15-foot-deep layer of mud in the 4,600-square-foot cavern.
"Imagine what's below," he said. "It might have been a split-level home for hobbits."
Dr. Gagan's team will return to the cave in June, with additional members, including Alan Cooper, an expert in ancient DNA with Adelaide University, and CSIRO mammalogist Ken Aplin.
Professor Morwood's group will also return to Liang Bua this year, after previously being denied access by Indonesian officials.
Both groups will continue to collaborate with the Indonesian National Research Center for Archaeology. Dr. Gagan's group is also working with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.