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Lost Tribe of Little People

by Kristen Philipkoski   Oct. 27, 2004

Scientists are shocked to learn that human remains found in Indonesia in 2003 belong to a previously unknown miniature human species that lived on a south Asian island just 18,000 years ago.

The full-grown female human was barely a meter tall, with a skull the size of a grapefruit. The discovery is proof, the researchers say, that human species in the recent past are much more diverse than previously thought.

Excavators discovered the remains of a cranium, right and left leg, hand and other bone fragments in a cave called Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores, about 400 miles east of Bali.

The archeology world is agog. Researchers previously believed that people with such a small brain and body last walked the Earth 3 million years ago.

“I would have been less surprised if my colleagues had found an alien spacecraft,” said Peter Brown, an associate professor of archaeology at Australia's University of New England in Armidale, who describes his analysis of the remains in the Oct. 28 issue of Nature.

The fact that the remains date to just 18,000 years ago is remarkable, Brown said. “In evolutionary terms, this was yesterday.”

The excavation team, led by Mike Morwood of the University of New England and R.P. Soejono of the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology, nicknamed the specimen Hobbit, but its official name is Homo florensiensis.

The researchers say the new species descended from Homo erectus, from which Homo sapiens also evolved. Scientists believe that H. erectus spread from Africa to Asia, as far as Indonesia, about 2 million years ago. The Liang Bua remains may have descended from a population of H. erectus, evolving into a dwarf form when they became isolated on Flores at some point in the last few hundred thousand years.

The researchers also discovered that despite a small brain size, the mini-humans exhibited surprisingly complex behavior. Other discoveries around the cave indicate that they hunted communally, used fire and made sophisticated stone tools.

Because the island is so isolated, creatures morphed into either dwarf or giant forms, including a little elephant called a pygmy Stegodon, and Komodo dragons, giant lizards and turtles that were almost as large as the elephants. But this is the first such incident noted in a human species, showing that humans are subject to the same evolutionary processes as all other mammals.

“On small islands it is common for animals larger than a rabbit to shrink, while very small mammals get bigger,” Brown said.

The amount of food available and the absence of predators causes these odd size changes, the advantage being that you need less food to survive when you're small. For example, the elephants likely became very small because they had limited food, but no animals threatening to eat them.

Not everyone is convinced the find is an example of a new human species. To some, the specimen has a baffling combination of small dimensions and coarse features, bearing little resemblance either to modern humans or to our large, archaic cousins.

They suggest that Flores woman doesn't belong in the genus Homo at all, even if it was a recent contemporary. But they are unsure how to classify the species.

“I don't think anybody can pigeonhole this into the very simple-minded theories of what is human,” anthropologist Jeffery Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh. “There is no biological reason to call it Homo. We have to rethink what it is.”

Others say the data is solid.

“I think it's very possible that they do have a new Homo species,” said Lori Baker, an assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor Universtiy in Waco, Texas. “The most fascinating thing that could be done in my lifetime is to study DNA from this specimen.”

Genetic analysis could explain how different Flores woman might be from other Homo species, and show where her DNA fits on the evolutionary timeline.

Thomas Sutikna and colleagues from the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology were first to find the skeleton in September 2003. They initially thought it was a child, but when they studied the cranium and teeth they found it was a woman, approximately 30 years old.

“The shape of the skull and skeleton made it clear that this was a human relative that walked on two legs just like us,” Brown said.

The researchers also determined she was not a dwarf or abnormal in any way, but perfectly proportioned for her size. The researchers found the remains of similar hobbit-sized humans in the cave as well, further confirming that the island was once home to a population of little people.

While the Homo florensiensis remains dated to 18,000 years ago, the research team has not ruled out that the small human species may have survived on the island as recently as the 1500s. This is supported by local folk tales.

The stories suggest that the little people lived in caves, and villagers would leave food in gourds outside for the hobbit-humans, according to Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong and co-author of the study.

“Legend has it these were the guests from hell,” Roberts said in a statement. “They’d eat everything, including the gourds.”

The research suggests there are more human species to discover, and Brown said the next research site will be Sulawesi, another Indonesian island.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

November 7, 2003

This article was found at  www.wired.com

related article: Legend of the Tuar-Tums

 

 


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