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Rise of the little people

But it’s not the small stature or suspect intellect that has experts hailing the discovery as "among the most outstanding discoveries in paleoanthropology for half a century." It’s what the found bones reveal about the Floresians’ lineage.
Richard Lewis/AP
Richard Lewis/AP

Jonathan Swift gave us the Lilliputians and JRR Tolkien that more recently popular humanoid race known as Hobbits. The collective Irish consciousness produced leprechauns.

Now comes Homo floresiensis, another line of little people but with a big difference: Unlike their fictitious counterparts, the Floresians truly existed, living until about 13,000 years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores 370 miles east of Bali between Asia and Australia.

Discovery of the species has stood the paleoanthropological community on its collective ear and led to speculation that perhaps other equally astounding discoveries could be made in the future.

Skeletons recently found in a cave on the island by a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists reveal adults who stood about three and a half feet high with skulls about half the size of a modern human’s. Despite a somewhat limited mental capacity — it’s estimated the average Floresian brain was smaller than a chimpanzee’s — there is evidence they were a weapons-making people who knew how to generate and use fire.

But it’s not the small stature or suspect intellect that has experts hailing the discovery as "among the most outstanding discoveries in paleoanthropology for half a century." It’s what the found bones reveal about the Floresians’ lineage.

‘Island dwarfing’
They were not a downsized version of Homo sapiens, or modern man, who is known to have reached Australia 40,000 years ago. Rather analysis of the Floresians’ anatomical characteristics point to a more ancient ancestor, Homo erectus, who populated east Asia before becoming extinct more than 30,000 years ago.

Homo erectus was one of several humanlike lines — the Neanderthals of Europe and west Asia were another — that were descended from man’s African ancestor, the ape-like Australopithecines, before eventually disappearing and giving way to Homo sapiens.

What has amazed the paleoathropological community is that a relic of Homo erectus survived into modern times and shared the same corner of the planet, if not the same island, with modern man.

“It’s quite remarkable,” says William Kimbel, an anthropologist and science director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University. “It’s contrary to the way we conceived of human evolution in those periods. We had thought Homo sapiens was the only game in town.”

Remarkable maybe, but at the same time not totally unpredictable.

“The discovery on one hand is quite surprising because it requires that we revise how we imagined the history of human evolution taking place,” Kimbel explains. “But on the other hand, given that the discovery meets with many of the expectations we have about how mammalian life responds to life on a small island, it’s not surprising.”

Kimbel is referring to the phenomenon of “island dwarfing,” whereby “a small population of large-bodied mammals becomes isolated and evolves to a smaller size because of limited resources and a small area.” Another condition for island dwarfing is a lack of predators.

And indeed any predation that occurred on Flores apparently was perpetrated by the Floresians, not against them. In addition to hunting weapons, the fossil record includes the remains of giant komodo lizards and of pygmy elephants.

The fact that the island’s elephants also evolved into a smaller size is further endorsement of the notion that the Floresians were products of island dwarfing.         

Future discoveries likely?
Although the link between Homo erectus and the Floresians seems clear, Kimbel for one advises not to make too much of it.

“It would be a mistake to draw a bold, smooth line from Homo erectus (to Homo floresiensis),” he says. “What you have is a population of hominids, perhaps Homo erectus, that at some point in the past got to the island, got marooned and evolved in a completely new direction.”

So was the relic population that evolved on Flores a one-of-a-kind thing, or is it a precedent for similar curiosities occurring elsewhere?

Kimbel says it is “perfectly possible” that additional humanlike species will turn up, given the right circumstances. First and foremost is isolation of the kind found on an island.

That rules out Europe as the scene of any future discovery, he says, because “there are no isolated parts of Europe.” More likely is the setting that produced the Floresians: an island near Asia.

He cites Homo heidelbergensis as one possible antecedent of any yet-to-be-discovered species. The hominids, who disappeared from the scene about 100,000 years ago, were present in east Asia before eventually migrating west. It’s conceivable that some members of the species found their way to an island, became marooned and then evolved in a new direction.

Perfectly possible, maybe, but still a long shot.

Referring to the discovery of the Floresians, Kimbel says, “Should this be seen as an exception? No. But it should be seen as an exceptional discovery and that the likelihood of their being others is small.”

Philipp Harper is a freelance writer living in south Georgia.