Thu, Oct. 28, 2004
Miniature human species discovered
By Seth Borenstein
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
*NOTE* 2 days later – I just noticed the guy’s last name is BORENstein. Heh.
WASHINGTON – A miniature, long-lost relative of modern humans has been discovered, shaking up science’s view of how we evolved on Earth.
Scientists, who unearthed her after 18,000 years, nicknamed her “Hobbit,” after the short characters who starred in “Lord of the Rings.”
She stood 3 feet tall with a brain the size of a grapefruit. Yet she was smart enough to use tools, boats and probably language, and likely hunted pygmy elephants. She’s being called a strange new species of human.
Scientists found Hobbit and six other skeletons of this lost species on Flores, a remote Indonesian island, according to a study to be published today in the scientific journal Nature.
The discovery means that about 50,000 years ago, there were four species of humans roaming the Earth at the same time: Homo sapiens (us), Homo erectus, Neanderthals and this new relative, called Homo Floresiensis (also called Flores Man).
The scientists who found the skeletons last year in a cave on the island, about 375 miles east of Bali, named their best specimen, a 30-year-old female, after the diminutive Tolkien fantasy characters.
She and her contemporaries weighed about 55 pounds, had slightly longer arms than modern humans, had thicker eyebrow ridges than we do, sharply sloping foreheads and not much of a chin, said co-discoverer Richard “Bert” Roberts of Australia’s University of Wollongong.
In the cave, scientists found evidence of fire and “sophisticated stone tools” used for the communal hunting of pygmy elephants, which are about the size of a water buffalo.
“The Hobbit was nobody’s fool,” Roberts said in an e-mail interview. “Given that Homo Floresiensis is the smallest human species ever discovered, they out-punch EVERY known human intellectually pound for pound.”
In the past, researchers had figured that humans had to have big brains to evolve, but Hobbit makes them realize that “once you get to a certain size brain in humans, size doesn’t matter; wiring (the way nerve cells are connected) matters,” said Rick Potts, the director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History.
Scientists think Homo Floresiensis was wiped out in a massive volcanic eruption 12,000 years ago that also killed off the island’s pygmy elephants, said co-discoverer Peter Brown of the University of New England.
The existence of Flores Man for at least 30,000 years adds a bizarre chapter to the study of human evolution.
“We have a generally pretty good picture of what’s going on in human evolution,” Potts said. “But in this case, this is a surprising story of what can happen to one of our cousins.”
Flores Man is smaller than its predecessor, Homo erectus. In the past, scientists had known that other species of animals got smaller on remote islands — when resources are scarce, it’s better to be smaller — but couldn’t show that that applied to humans.
“It is a clear indication that (humans) are subject to the same biological processes as all other mammals,” Brown said. “We are relatively intelligent tool makers, but apart from that, we are not particularly special.”
Flores Man was an accidental discovery that took a year to confirm.
“When we first unearthed the skeleton, I was simultaneously gobsmacked, puzzled and amused!” Roberts said in his e-mail.
“We had been digging in the cave looking for the remains of the earliest modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Indonesia … so when we found the skeleton of a completely new species of human, with so many primitive traits and that survived until so recently, it really opened up a whole can of prehistoric worms.”
Now scientists have to figure out Hobbit’s place on the human family tree.
“This is a side branch to the origin of Homo sapiens … that wasn’t joined up in the main story,” Potts said. “Bizarre.”
Roberts is ready to go to another Indonesian island, Sulawesi — which he said had a “well-known range of strange and unusual creatures” — in search of what he calls “another lost tribe.”