The 3ft-tall 'hobbit' that rewrites the history of mankind

Posted in Other | 29-Oct-04 | Author: Steve Connor and David Keys| Source: The Independent

A skull, at left, found on a remote island. At right, a modern skull.

Scientists are celebrating the most important breakthrough in anthropology for a century: the discovery of a new species of apeman.

Described as human "hobbits", the apemen grew no taller than about 3ft and had brains the size of grapefruits. They lived alongside prehistoric man for thousands of years before they finally died out in the dense jungles of Indonesia, in a lost world inhabited by dwarf elephants and giant rats.

Archaeologists excavated the skeletal remains of the little humans from a cave on the remote Indonesian island of Flores, which has a rich history of exotic animals such as giant lizards and miniature beasts.

Four dating techniques proved the species of "little people" was still living in the region as recently as 13,000 years ago. They may even have survived into more modern times - when they could have been the inspiration for local folktales of shy pygmy apemen who lived in the forest.

Specialists said the new species, officially named Homo floresiensis, or Flores Man, calls into question the very nature of what it means to be human, because of its extraordinary dwarfed features and tiny brain.

A partial skeleton of a female, nicknamed "hobbit" by the research team, has left the specialists in no doubt that Flores Woman represents a new and most unusual member of the human family. The skeleton is 18,000 years old and, although small, is perfectly proportioned.

At first, researchers thought she was a child but closed skull sutures and wear on the teeth suggest that she was about 30 when she died. Further remains of up to seven individuals, some dating to only 13,000 years ago, suggest that there was once a thriving population on the volcanic island.

It is unequivocal evidence that another species of human was living at the same time as our recent ancestors. It suggests the two would almost certainly have come into contact with one another at some time.

The zoologist and writer on evolution Richard Dawkins, professor of scientific understanding at Oxford University, described the find as "the most exciting surprise to hit anthropology for decades".

Professor Mike Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, Australia, said he and his team could not believe their discovery when the dating methods pointed to such a recent past. "It is a new species of human who actually lived alongside us, yet were half our size," he said.

They were the height of a three-year-old child, weighed around 25 kilos [4 stone] and had a brain that was smaller than that of most chimpanzees. Even so, they used fire, made stone tools and hunted stegadon - a primitive type of elephant - and giant rats. "We believe their ancestors may have reached the island in bamboo rafts. The clear implication is, despite tiny brains, these little humans were intelligent and almost certainly had language," Professor Morwood said.

Anatomical studies show that Flores Woman had a brain capacity of 380 cubic centimetres, about a third of the volume of a typical modern human and about half the size of Homo erectus, a primitive species that predated Homo sapiens. Until now, most scientists believed that H. erectus died out about half a million years ago.

But the scientists, who describe the find in the journal Nature, believe that Flores Man is a direct descendent of H. erectus, who had migrated to Flores and subsequently evolved into a dwarf form during the thousands of years of genetic isolation on a remote island.

The Darwinian process is called "endemic island dwarfism", seen in many large animals that find themselves trapped on an island, said Professor Peter Brown of the University of New England. "Although a common feature of large mammals in insular environments, this has never been recorded for a human relative before," Professor Brown said.

Flores Woman's partial skeleton was discovered at a large limestone cavern called Liang Bua. Archaeological evidence suggests the cave has been inhabited for about 800,000 years.

Archaeologists have found stone tools in the cave that appear similar to those made by H. erectus at other sites in the world, but with the crucial difference that they are far smaller.

Flores suffered a catastrophic volcanic eruption about 12,000 years ago. After this date there is no further evidence of Homo floresiensis.