Fossils of tiny human dug up in Indonesia

Bones: A hobbit-like cousin of modern man lived on an island maybe as recently as 13,000 years ago.

October 28, 2004|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Researchers probing a cool cave on a tropical Indonesian island have found a bizarre branch of our family tree - an extinct hobbit-size species of human that experts are calling one of the most important discoveries in 50 years.

The people on the island of Flores were a little over 3 feet tall, weighed about 55 pounds and had brains a third the size of ours - smaller than the brains of chimpanzees. But they used fire and stone tools and hunted collectively as recently as 13,000 years ago - a period when humans elsewhere were beginning to farm.

Researchers from the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology and a group of Australian universities discovered Homo floresiensis while looking for clues about how ancient humans first reached Australia. Instead they found evidence of the smallest people ever known.

"We came to refer to them as the hobbits because keep in mind they're only half as big as us," said Richard "Bert" Roberts, co-author of one of two reports describing the discovery in today's issue of Nature.

Hobbits are the mythical, furry, 3-foot-tall people who inhabit J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Last year, researchers uncovered the skull and partial skeleton of a 30-year-old woman after digging 16 feet down in the clay and silt floor of a limestone cave in a village called Liang Bua. They also uncovered fragments of stone tools, the remains of a Komodo dragon and remains of a stegodon, a type of extinct elephant believed to have been part of their diet.

While digging this year, they found the remains of up to seven more tiny people.

Find `out of left field'

The researchers originally thought the first remains were those of a child, but when tests on the skull confirmed her age, they were stunned by her diminutive size and unusual body shape.

"It comes out of left field. If they had said, `we've found an alien spacecraft - come out and take a look' - I would've been less surprised," said Peter Brown, a researcher at Australia's University of New England and a lead author of today's report.

Brown said he and other researchers don't know why the hobbit-like people were so small. It might have been that survival favored smaller bodies on Flores because of limited food supplies. Such "dwarfing" on island habitats has been documented in animals, but the Flores specimen would be the first example among humans.

At an estimated 42 inches, the Flores skeleton indicates a human 9 inches shorter than modern pygmies in Africa and about the same size as Lucy - an adult Homo erectus skeleton that was found in Ethiopia in 1974 and estimated at 3 million years old.

In an article accompanying the reports in Nature, Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert Foley, human origin experts from the University of Cambridge in England, call the Flores find "the most outstanding discoveries in paleoanthropology in half a century." Other experts agree.

"I'm scrambling around on the floor to find where my jaw dropped," said Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins at George Washington University.

Researchers say there is no way to know how long the Flores "hobbits" survived on the island, which lies northwest of the Australian city of Darwin and due east of Bali. But analyses of the remains and cave sediment indicate they might have lived there from 95,000 to 13,000 years ago.

In 1998, archaeologist Michael J. Morwood of the University of New England found stone tools that had been used elsewhere on Flores about 840,000 years ago by a population of Homo erectus. The Flores people are believed to be descendants of that earlier group.

The researchers have no idea what killed off the little people. But the island is a hotbed of volcanic activity, and an eruption could have wiped out both the people and the extinct giant rats and stegodons that were staples of their diet.

Meanwhile, experts say the discovery shows how complicated our family tree might be.

"I think it shows that paleoanthropologists have really underestimated the degree of diversity in our evolutionary past," said Jeffrey Schwartz, a physical anthropologist at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's spectacular."

Most experts believe modern humans, or Homo sapiens, are a relatively new species, developing about 160,000 years ago as the product of evolutionary progress that began millions of years earlier with the great apes.

Several migrations

They say that Homo sapiens left Africa, possibly 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, in the last of several hominid migrations. The species rose to dominate the planet when its closest rival, the Neanderthals, disappeared about 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals and a handful of other species, such as Homo erectus, emerged earlier than modern humans but died out thousands of years ago.

Experts say the discovery of a unique human species that lived as recently as 13,000 years ago shows we might have shared the planet with more species than previously thought.

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