A SPECIES OF tiny human has been discovered, which lived on the remote Indonesian island of Flores just 18,000 years ago. Researchers have so far unearthed remains from eight individuals who were just one metre tall, with grapefruit-sized skulls. These astonishing little people, nicknamed 'hobbits', made tools, hunted tiny elephants and lived at the same time as modern humans who were colonizing the area.
The find has excited researchers with its implications - if unexpected branches of humanity are still being found today, and lived so recently, then who knows what else might be out there? The species' diminutive stature indicates that humans are subject to the same evolutionary forces that made other mammals shrink to dwarf size when in genetic isolation and under ecological pressure, such as on an island with limited resources.
The new species, reported this week in Nature, was found by Australian and Indonesian scientists in a rock shelter called Liang Bua on the island of Flores. The team unearthed a near-complete skeleton, thought to be a female, including the skull, jaw and most teeth, along with bones and teeth from at least seven other individuals. In the same site they also found bones from Komodo dragons and an extinct pygmy elephant called Stegodon.
The hominin bones were not fossilized, but in a condition the team described as being like "mashed potatoes", a result of their age and the damp conditions. "The skeleton had the consistency of wet blotting paper, so a less experienced excavator might have trashed the find," says Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong, Australia.
"Only the Indonesians were present at the actual moment of discovery - the Australian contingent had departed back to Oz," says Roberts. He credits Thomas Sutikna of the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta for the excellent handling of the samples. The success has inspired national pride at the centre, the researchers say. "This is very important for Indonesian society," says co-author R. P. Soejono.
Rex Dalton --"Dwarf hominid lived in Indonesia just 18,000 years ago"
Brown P., et al. Nature, 431. 1055 - 1061 (2004) and Morwood M. J., et al. Nature, 431. 1087 - 1091(2004).