Scien­tists uncov­er pos­si­ble new species of human

Dwarf skele­ton is 18,000 years old
Wednes­day, Octo­ber 27, 2004 Post­ed: 7:09 PM EDT (2309 GMT)

(AP) — In a breath­tak­ing dis­cov­ery, sci­en­tists work­ing on a remote Indone­sian island say they have uncov­ered the bones of a human dwarf species marooned for eons while mod­ern man rapid­ly col­o­nized the rest of the planet.

One tiny spec­i­men, an adult female mea­sur­ing about 3 feet tall, is described as “the most extreme” fig­ure to be includ­ed in the extend­ed human fam­i­ly. Cer­tain­ly, she is the shortest.

This hob­bit-sized crea­ture appears to have lived as recent­ly as 18,000 years ago on the island of Flo­res, a kind of trop­i­cal Lost World pop­u­lat­ed by giant lizards and minia­ture elephants.

She is the best exam­ple of a trove of frag­ment­ed bones that account for as many as sev­en of these prim­i­tive indi­vid­u­als. Sci­en­tists have named the new species Homo flo­re­sien­sis, or Flo­res Man. The spec­i­mens’ ages range from 95,000 to 12,000 years old.

“So the 18,000-year-old skele­ton can­not be some kind of ‘freak’ that we just hap­pened to stum­ble across,” said one of the dis­cov­er­ers, radio­car­bon dat­ing expert Richard G. Roberts of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wol­lon­gong in Australia.

Flo­res Man was hard­ly for­mi­da­ble. His grape­fruit-sized brain was about a quar­ter the size of the brain of our species, Homo sapi­ens. It is clos­er in size with the brains of tran­si­tion­al pre­hu­man species in Africa more than 3 mil­lion years ago.

Yet evi­dence sug­gests Flo­res Man made stone tools, lit fires and orga­nized group hunts for meat.

Just how this prim­i­tive, rem­nant species man­aged to hang on and whether it crossed paths with mod­ern humans is uncer­tain. Geo­log­ic evi­dence sug­gests a mas­sive vol­canic erup­tion sealed its fate some 12,000 years ago, along with oth­er unusu­al species on the island.

Still, researchers say the per­se­ver­ance of Flo­res Man smash­es the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that mod­ern humans began to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly crowd out oth­er upright-walk­ing species 160,000 years ago and have dom­i­nat­ed the plan­et alone for tens of thou­sands of years.

And it demon­strates that Africa, the acknowl­edged cra­dle of human­i­ty, does not hold all the answers to per­sis­tent ques­tions of how — and where — we came to be.

“It is arguably the most sig­nif­i­cant dis­cov­ery con­cern­ing our own genus in my life­time,” said anthro­pol­o­gist Bernard Wood of George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty, who reviewed the research independently.

Dis­cov­er­ies sim­ply “don’t get any bet­ter than that,” pro­claimed Robert Foley and Mar­ta Mira­zon Lahr of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty in a writ­ten analysis.

To oth­ers, the spec­i­men’s baf­fling com­bi­na­tion of slight dimen­sions and coarse fea­tures bears almost no mean­ing­ful resem­blance either to mod­ern humans or to our large, archa­ic cousins.

They sug­gest that Flo­res Man does­n’t belong in the genus Homo at all, even if it was a recent contemporary.

“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.”

Details of the dis­cov­ery appear in Thurs­day’s issue of the jour­nal Nature.

Researchers from Aus­tralia and Indone­sia found the par­tial skele­ton 13 months ago in a shal­low lime­stone cave known as Liang Bua. The cave, which extends into a hill­side for about 130 feet, has been the sub­ject of sci­en­tif­ic analy­sis since 1964.

Near the skele­ton were stone tools and ani­mal remains, includ­ing teeth from a young Ste­godon, or pre­his­toric dwarf ele­phant, as well as fish, birds and rodents. Some of the bones were charred, sug­gest­ing they were cooked.

Exca­va­tions are con­tin­u­ing. In 1998, stone tools and oth­er evi­dence were found on Flo­res sug­gest­ed the pres­ence 900,000 years ago of anoth­er ear­ly human, Homo erec­tus. The tools were found a cen­tu­ry after the cel­e­brat­ed dis­cov­ery in the 1890s of big-boned H. erec­tus fos­sils in east­ern Java.

start quoteIt is arguably the most sig­nif­i­cant dis­cov­ery con­cern­ing our own genus in my lifetime.end quote
— Bernard Wood, anthropologist

Now, researchers sug­gest H. erec­tus spread to remote Flo­res and through­out the region, per­haps on bam­boo rafts. Caves on sur­round­ing islands are the tar­get of future stud­ies, they said.

Researchers sus­pect that Flo­res Man prob­a­bly is an H. erec­tus descen­dant that was squeezed by evo­lu­tion­ary pressures.

Nature is full of mam­mals — deer, squir­rels and pigs, for exam­ple — liv­ing in mar­gin­al, iso­lat­ed envi­ron­ments that grad­u­al­ly dwarf when food isn’t plen­ti­ful and preda­tors aren’t threatening.

On Flo­res, the Komo­do drag­on and oth­er large meat-eat­ing lizards prowled. But Flo­res Man did­n’t have to wor­ry about vio­lent human neighbors.

This is the first time that the evo­lu­tion of dwarfism has been record­ed in a human rel­a­tive, said the study’s lead author, Peter Brown of the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Eng­land in Australia.

Sci­en­tists are still strug­gling to iden­ti­fy it’s jum­bled features.

Many say that its face and skull fea­tures show suf­fi­cient traits to be includ­ed in the Homo fam­i­ly that includes mod­ern humans. It would be the eighth species in the Homo category.

George Wash­ing­ton’s Wood, for exam­ple, finds it “con­vinc­ing.”

Oth­ers aren’t sure.

For exam­ple, they say the skull is wide like H. erec­tus. But the sides are rounder and the crown traces an arc from ear to ear. The skull of H. erec­tus has steep­er sides and a point­ed crown, they said.

The low­er jaw con­tains large, blunt teeth and roots like Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus, a pre­hu­man ances­tor in Africa more than 3 mil­lion years ago. The front teeth are small­er than mod­ern human teeth.

The eye sock­ets are big and round, but they don’t car­ry a promi­nent browline.

The tib­ia in the leg shares sim­i­lar­i­ties with apes.

“I’ve spent a sleep­less night try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with this thing,” said Schwartz. “It makes me think of noth­ing else in this world.”

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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