New Finds of Human Ancestor Jumble Evolutionary Puzzle ; Three Feet Tall and Built like a Long-Extinct Primate, Homo Floresiensis Nevertheless Mastered Toolmaking

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In their study of the evolutionary ladder, scientists have found that modern humans rubbed elbows with some colorful cousins. But few have been as puzzling as a purported cousin unearthed on the Indonesian island of Flores.

The partial skeleton, first reported last October, was stunning. Estimated to stand just over three feet tall, it offered the tantalizing possibility that a new species of mini-human lived 18,000 years ago. But some researchers dismissed the find as a pygmy or the result of a physical defect.

Now the research team that gave the world the hobbit-like Homo floresiensis has found what it sees as confirmation that the species did, in fact, exist. It reports that it has unearthed additional fossils at the site, representing at least nine similar individuals. They range in age from 12,000 years ago to perhaps 95,000 years old. If the team's conclusions hold up, the fossils throw into question key theories about the human family tree.

The fossils "are not only astonishing, but also exciting because of the questions they raise," according to Daniel Lieberman, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University.

Among the questions: Who were their ancestors? How did the diminutive creatures reach the island? And how did they survive so long after modern humans appeared in the Indonesian archipelago?

At the very least, the finds dramatically underscore how much anthropologists still have to learn about the diversity of species gathered under the umbrella designation of hominids, which gave rise to modern humans, researchers say.

The mineralized remains from the site at Liang Bua include arm and thigh bones, shoulder blades, fingers, toes, and jaws. The results appear in today's edition of the journal Nature.

These additional puzzle pieces suggest that H. floresiensis not only was short but built much like long-extinct primates called australopithecines, according to the Australian and Indonesian research team, led by Michael Morwood and Peter Brown at Australia's University of New England. Australopithecines lived in eastern Africa from 1 million to 4 million years ago.

Just as confounding, stone chips, anvils, and tools indicated that these Ice Age Lilliputians had mastered stone toolmaking, as well as the use of fire. And they had a penchant for hunting pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons for dinner. All these are feats that scientists usually attribute to hominids with far bigger brains and greater cognitive abilities. …