In the Middle-Earth novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, the distinguishing features of a hobbit were its diminutive stature and its large, hairy feet.
The curious lower-limb anatomy of Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee, however, was not confined to the fictional world of "The Lord of the Rings."
An ancient race of miniature human cousins, nicknamed "hobbits" because they stood 3 feet tall, also sported oversized feet, which could settle a bitter dispute about its identity.
Ever since the non-fictional hobbit was first described in 2004, from a fossilized skeleton found on the Indonesian island of Flores, scientists have been arguing about whether or not the creatures, which lived until about 12,000 years ago, belonged to a separate species.
While most experts on human origins consider Homo floresiensis to be anatomically different from Homo sapiens, a vociferous minority have argued that it was a modern human with a brain disease called microcephaly that stunted its growth.
The hobbit's feet could now provide an answer. A new analysis of its skeleton, published in the journal Nature, shows that its feet were much larger in proportion to its body than those of modern humans, and lacked arches.
They appear to be the feet of a new species — though whether or not the feet were hairy cannot be determined.
"Arches are the hallmark of a modern human foot," said William Harcourt-Smith of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, a leader of the research. "This is another strong piece of the evidence that the 'hobbit' was not like us."
[In fact, say the researchers, the hobbit could not have run as we do because it lacked arched feet. Since the first human species known to have left Africa, Homo erectus, had feet much like ours, this implies the hobbit was the descendant of an earlier, unknown migration out of the ancestral continent.]