Magazine article Science & Spirit

Concerning Hobbits

Magazine article Science & Spirit

Concerning Hobbits

Article excerpt

Near the end of last year, paleontologist Chris Stringer, who heads the human origins department at the Natural History Museum in London, suggested there are two kinds of evolution supporters: those who believe evolution is like a tree, with modern humans looking down from the top branch, and those who believe the process is more like a bush--a messier, complicated affair with no clear trajectory or ultimate peak. Most paleontologists, Stringer said, fall into the second camp.

Yet even for them, it was "remarkable" and "completely unexpected" when an excavation team announced it had unearthed the remains of what it called "a Hobbit"--or a thirty-year old female with a brain smaller than most chimpanzees' and the height of a three-year-old child. More shocking still: She lived just 18,000 years ago. The skeleton, found on the Indonesian island of Flores, has now become the type specimen for a new human species, Homo floresiensis, believed to have lived in Liang Bua, a limestone cave on Flores, from about 95,000 to 12,000 years ago.

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"We have known for many years that different species of prehumans and early humans may have coexisted, particularly in Africa prior to 2 million years ago," explained Stringer. "But the Flores find raises the possibility that as recently as 50,000 years ago, there could still have been at least four species of humans on Earth: Homo sapiens spreading from Africa; Homo neanderthalensis in western Eurasia; Homo erectus surviving in Java; and now Homo floresiensis, perhaps surviving as late as 12,000 years ago in Flores. …

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