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