Scientific name: Homo floresiensis Scientific classification:
Flores Human—Here a female Homofloresiensis, barely 1 m tall, walks back to her group's cave with a large rodent she has killed. (Phil Miller)
When did it become extinct? The most recent remains of this hominid are 18,000 years old, but it is very possible that it survived well into historic times. Where did it live? The bones of Flores man have only been found on the island of Flores,
In 2004, a group of scientists revealed to the world what they found in a cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia. The story featured in the news all over the world, and their discovery could be one of the most important paleoanthropological discoveries ever made. Almost 6 m beneath the floor of a large limestone cave called "Liang Bua," the team of Australian and Indonesian scientists found a partial skeleton of a human, but one that was quite unlike anything that had ever been seen before. Although the skeleton was not complete, there was enough to see that it was an adult female (she was probably around 30 years old when she died), and the most astonishing thing about the find was the size of the individual. Fully grown, she was no taller than a three-year-old child—about 1 m tall, with a brain no bigger than a chimpanzee's.
Ever since the scientists published their discovery in the journal Nature, there has been heated debate on exactly what the skeleton represents. Is it a pygmy modern human, a modern human with a disease or anatomical abnormality, or a genuinely new species? Current opinion swings in favor of the skeleton being of a new species of human that may have evolved in isolation on the island of Flores from a Homo erectus-like ancestor. Another amazing thing about the skeleton was its age. The bones were not fossilized, nor were they covered in calcium carbonate. They were actually very delicate, with the consistency of wet blotting paper. The material around the bones was aged using modern techniques, and it turned out that they were around 18,000 years old. Before this discovery, it was thought that the Neanderthals, the last species of human other than our own species, died out around 28,000 years ago. If the Flores discovery is a genuinely new species, modern humans had shared the earth with another species of human, albeit a miniature one, up until at least 18,000 years ago, which, in geological terms, is the blink of an eye.
Why was this human so tiny? The diminutive size of the Flores human could be due to a phenomenon known as the island rule. This phenomenon can be seen on islands all over the world. It seems, that in some cases, any animal larger than a rabbit that finds itself marooned on an island shrinks, but for some animals smaller than a rabbit, the reverse is true, and they develop into giants. Survival on an island can be tough; food may be in short supply, and dispersing to new habitats is not an option. Therefore, if you are a big animal, it makes sense to shrink as a smaller body requires less energy than a big body. Scholars always assumed that humans were beyond this general biological rule because they can make fire to keep warm and use a host of other ways to cheat the environment. Perhaps the ancestors of the Flores humans were less adaptable than modern humans, and the conditions favored a smaller body size.
Along with the bones, a great number of stone artifacts were also found. Many of these are simple stone tools, but some are much more sophisticated and seem to be designed for specific purposes. Again, debate rages over whether these tools were made by Flores humans or modern humans who occupied the cave at a later date Their size suggests that they were wielded by small hands, but until more bones and tools are unearthed, it will be difficult to know for sure. Regardless of the tools Flores humans fashioned, they hunted the Flores animals for food. Many of the animal bones found along with the Flores human skeleton belong to an animal called a stegodon, a small-bodied distant relative of modern elephants, which had also gone through a shrinking process, until it was a dwarf compared to its close relatives on the mainland. Some of the stegodon bones bear the marks of butchery and burning. Is this one of the animals these diminutive humans hunted? A fully grown stegodon is small by modern elephant standards, but it still weighed in the region of 1,000 kg, and a lone, 25-kg human could never have brought down one of these animals; therefore the Flores humans must have hunted in teams, coordinating their efforts to subdue their large quarry.
If the Flores humans were able to hunt cooperatively, use fire, and make and use tools, they must have been intelligent, yet they had a tiny brain, about one-third the size of ours. Before the discovery of the Flores human, the accepted theory was that brain size and intelligence in hominids went hand in hand (the bigger the brain, the more intelligent the hominid). The bones unearthed in Liang Bua cave have challenged this long-held belief. Perhaps brain size is not the last word when it comes to intelligence; perhaps the most crucial factor is the way in which all the cells in the brain are linked together. This is but one of the many contentions surrounding the discovery and study of this fascinating skeleton.
The scientists who made this initial discovery plan to return to the site to make more excavations. If they find more miniature skeletons, or even just skulls, it will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Flores was once home to a species of tiny human. If this is correct, then what happened to these diminutive humans? Around 12,000 years ago, an immense volcanic eruption shook the area, and it is possible that this caused the demise of this species. However, Flores lore tells of mysterious dwarves called ebu gogo (literally translated, this means "grandmother who eats anything"). According to folklore, the ebu gogo were alive when Portuguese trading ships reached Flores 400 years ago, and some islanders believe that they were still around up until 100 years ago. Whether these accounts are genuinely a folk memory of extinct Flores humans or simply fireside stories will never be known, but they are nonetheless very interesting.
♦ In total, Liang Bua cave yielded bones from eight individuals of the Flores human, but so far, only one cranium has been discovered. More excavations on the island will hopefully reveal a complete skeleton of this hominid.
♦ The origins of the Flores human are unclear. Tools aged at 840,000 years old, thought to be the work of Homo erectus, have also been found on the island. The skull of the Flores human has many similarities with the known Homo erectus skulls, and as Homo erectus is the only hominid that we know for sure reached the Far East (apart from our own species), we can be reasonably confident that the Flores human descended from a population of Homo erectus that somehow became marooned on this Indonesian island.
♦ The scientists who discovered the Flores human have speculated that other Indonesian islands may also have had their own unique populations of human, the remains of which are still waiting to be discovered.
♦ Sightings of a short, bipedal hominid covered in short fur have been reported for at least 100 years from the island of Sumatra. Known by the islanders as the orang pendek, this animal is said to be around 150 cm tall and to reside in the dense rainforest. Is it possible that another species of hominid has escaped detection by the scientific world and is living in the rapidly dwindling forests of this huge Indonesian island?
Further Reading: Morwood, M.J., R. P. Soejono, R.G. Roberts, T. Sutikna, C.S.M. Turney, K.E. Westaway, W. J. Rink, X. Zhao, G. D. van den Bergh, D. Rokus Awe, D. R. Hobbs, M. W. Moore, M. I. Bird, and L. K. Fifield. "Archaeology and Age of a New Hominin from Flores in Eastern Indonesia." Nature 431 (2004): 1087-91; Wong, K. "The Littlest Human: A Spectacular Find in Indonesia Reveals That a Strikingly Different Hominid Shared the Earth with Our Kind in the Not So Distant Past." Scientific American, February 2005; Brown, P., T. Sutikna, M.J. Morwood, R. P. Soejono, E. Jatmiko, E. Wahyu Saptomo, and D. Rokus Awe. "A New Small-Bodied Hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia." Nature 431 (2004): 1055-61; Morwood, M.J., P. Brown, E. Jatmiko, T. Sutikna, E. Wahyu Saptomo, K. E. Westaway, D. Rokus Awe, R. G. Roberts, T. Maeda, S. Wasisto, and T. Djubiantono. "Further Evidence for Small-Bodied Homininss from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia." Nature 437 (2005): 1012-17; Obendorf, P. J., C. E. Oxnard, and B.J. Kefford. "Are the Small Human-like Fossils Found on Flores Human Endemic Cretins?" Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2008), doi:10.1098/rspb.2007.1488.
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