Hobbit Sized Race of Humans Found
Skeletons of these miniature people have been excavated from a limestone cave on Flores, an island 370 miles east of Bali, Indonesia, by a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists.
Reporting their find in today's issue of Nature, they assign the people to a new human species, Homo Floresiensis.
Oct. 28, 2004
Miniature human race once roamed lost island
Archaic species hunted huge lizards and tiny elephants
By NICHOLAS WADE
New York Times
Once upon a time, but not so long ago, on a tropical island midway between Asia and Australia, there lived a race of little people, whose adults stood just 3 1/2 feet tall. Despite their stature, they were mighty hunters. They made stone tools to spear giant rats, clubbed sleeping dragons and hunted the packs of pygmy elephants that roamed their "lost world."
Strangest of all, this is no fable. Skeletons of these miniature people have been excavated from a limestone cave on Flores, an island 370 miles east of Bali, Indonesia, by a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists.
Reporting their find in today's issue of Nature, they assign the people to a new human species, Homo floresiensis.
The finding is "among the most outstanding discoveries in paleoanthropology for half a century," say two anthropologists not associated with the study, Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr and Dr. Robert Foley of the University of Cambridge, in a commentary in the same issue.
The little Floresians lived on the island until at least 13,000 years ago, and possibly to historic times. But they were not a pygmy form of modern humans. They were a downsized version of Homo erectus, the eastern cousin of the Neanderthals of Europe, who disappeared 33,000 years ago.
Their discovery means that archaic humans, who left Africa 1.5 million years earlier than modern people, survived far longer into recent times than was previously supposed.
The island of Flores is very isolated and, before modern times, was inhabited only by a select group of animals that managed to reach it. These became subject to unusual evolutionary forces that propelled some toward giantism and reduced others in size.
The carnivorous lizards that reached Flores, perhaps on natural rafts, became giant-size and still survive, though now they are confined mostly to the nearby island of Komodo; they are called Komodo dragons. Elephants, because of their buoyancy, are surprisingly good swimmers; those that reached Flores evolved to a dwarf form the size of an ox.
Previous excavations by Dr. Michael J. Morwood, a member of the team that found the Floresians, showed that Homo erectus had arrived on Flores by 840,000 years ago, judging from the evidence of crude stone tools. Presumably their descendants became subject to the same evolutionary forces that downsized the elephants.
The first little Floresian, an adult female, was found in September last year, buried under about 18 feet of silt in the Liang Bua cave in Flores.
A team of paleoanthropologists headed by Dr. Peter Brown, of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, identified the skeleton, which is not fossilized, as a very small but otherwise normal individual, similar to Homo erectus.
Because the downsizing is so extreme, smaller than that in modern human pygmies, they assigned it to a new species.
In a companion report, Morwood, an archaeologist who is also at the University of New England, estimates the skeleton is 18,000 years old. He has since found the remains of six more individuals in the cave, with dates ranging from 13,000 to 95,000 years ago, he said.
There is evidence that the Floresians knew how to use fire. And there is an array of stone tools, considerably more sophisticated than any yet known to have been made by Homo erectus. The tools include small blades that might have been mounted on wooden shafts.
Morwood says they must have hunted cooperatively to bring down the pygmy elephants. To conduct such hunts and to fabricate such complex stone tools, they almost certainly had some form of language, he said.
This will be a surprising finding, if true, because the Floresians have brains slightly smaller than a chimpanzee's and similar in size to those of Australopithecines, the apelike ancestors of humans.
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