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. …