In a breathtaking discovery, scientists working on a remote
Indonesian island say they have uncovered the bones of a human
dwarf species marooned for eons while modern man rapidly colonized
the rest of the planet.

One tiny specimen, an adult female measuring about 3 feet tall,
is described as “the most extreme” figure to be
included in the extended human family. Certainly, she is the
shortest.

This hobbit-sized creature appears to have lived as recently as
18,000 years ago on the island of Flores, a kind of tropical Lost
World populated by giant lizards and miniature elephants.

She is the best example of a trove of fragmented bones that
account for as many as seven of these primitive individuals.
Scientists have named the new species Homo floresiensis, or Flores
Man. The specimens’ ages range from 95,000 to 12,000 years
old.

The discovery has astonished anthropologists unlike any in
recent memory. Flores Man is a totally new creature that was
fundamentally different from modern humans. Yet it lived until the
threshold of recorded human history, probably crossing paths with
the ancestors of today’s islanders.

“This finding really does rewrite our knowledge of human
evolution,” said Chris Stringer, who directs human origins
studies at the Natural History Museum in London. “And to have
them present less than 20,000 years ago is frankly
astonishing.”

Flores Man was hardly formidable. His grapefruit-sized brain was
about a quarter the size of the brain of our species, Homo sapiens.
It is closer in size to the brains of transitional prehuman species
in Africa more than 3 million years ago.

Evidence suggests Flores Man made stone tools, lit fires and
organized group hunts for meat.

Just how this primitive, remnant species managed to hang on is
unclear. Geologic evidence suggests a massive volcanic eruption
sealed its fate some 12,000 years ago, along with other unusual
species on the island.

Researchers say the perseverance of Flores Man smashes the
conventional wisdom that modern humans began to systematically
crowd out other upright-walking species 160,000 years ago and have
dominated the planet alone for tens of thousands of years.

And it demonstrates that Africa, the acknowledged cradle of
humanity, does not hold all the answers to persistent questions of
how we came to be.

“It is arguably the most significant discovery concerning
our own genus in my lifetime,” said anthropologist Bernard
Wood of George Washington University, who reviewed the research
independently.

Discoveries simply “don’t get any better than
that,” proclaimed Robert Foley and Marta Mirazon Lahr of
Cambridge University in a written analysis.

To others, the specimen’s baffling combination of slight
dimensions and coarse features bears almost no meaningful
resemblance either to modern humans or to our large, archaic
cousins.

They suggest that Flores Man doesn’t belong in the genus
Homo at all, even if it was a recent contemporary. But they are
unsure how to classify the species.

“I don’t think anybody can pigeonhole this into the
very simple-minded theories of what is human,” anthropologist
Jeffery Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh. “There is
no biological reason to call it Homo. We have to rethink what it
is.”

Details of the discovery appear in Thursday’s issue of the
journal Nature.

Researchers from Australia and Indonesia found the partial
skeleton 13 months ago in a shallow limestone cave known as Liang
Bua. The cave, which extends into a hillside for about 130 feet,
has been the subject of scientific analysis since 1964.

The female skeleton and fragments from the six other individuals
are being stored in a laboratory in Jakarta, Indonesia. The cave,
which now is surrounded by coffee farms, is fenced off and
patrolled by guards.

Near the skeleton were stone tools and animal remains, including
teeth from a young stegodon, or prehistoric dwarf elephant, as well
as fish, birds and rodents. Some of the bones were charred,
suggesting they were cooked.

Excavations are continuing. In 1998, stone tools and other
evidence found on Flores suggested the presence 900,000 years ago
of another early human, Homo erectus. The tools were found a
century after the celebrated discovery in the 1890s of big-boned H.
erectus fossils in eastern Java.

Now, researchers suggest H. erectus spread to remote Flores and
throughout the region, perhaps on bamboo rafts. Caves on
surrounding islands are the target of future studies, they
said.

Researchers suspect that Flores Man probably is an H. erectus
descendant that was squeezed by evolutionary pressures.

Nature is full of mammals living in marginal, isolated
environments that gradually dwarf when food isn’t plentiful
and predators aren’t threatening.

On Flores, the Komodo dragon and other large meat-eating lizards
prowled. But Flores Man didn’t have to worry about violent
human neighbors.

This is the first time that the evolution of dwarfism has been
recorded in a human relative, said the study’s lead author,
Peter Brown of the University of New England in Australia.

Scientists are still struggling to identify its jumbled
features.

Many say its face and skull features show sufficient traits to
be included in the Homo family that includes modern humans. It
would be the eighth species in the Homo category.

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