WEB EXCLUSIVE

Little Lady, Big Controversy

By Megan Mansell Williams|Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The story sounded so strange that many people initially took it for a hoax: A tiny humanlike female, with a brain the size of a chimp’s and a body the size of a hobbit’s (as news stories loved to point out), was living on the remote Indonesian island of Flores just 18,000 years ago. The remains of this three-foot-tall marvel and her kin, dubbed Homo floresiensis, now has anthropologists racing to rework their evolutionary trees—and battling with a key researcher who has taken possession of the bones, seeking to prove the whole discovery a mistake.

Indonesian archaeologists were digging in a cave when they found what they thought were the remains of a child because of her small stature. Wear patterns on clearly adult teeth soon showed the humanoid creature was actually a grown-up, around 30 years old.

The cave also contained the scattered bone fragments of up to six other adults, along with stone tools and animal remains. From the scraps, researchers pieced together a captivating portrait, in which dwarf-size human cousins hunted midget elephants and cooked them over open fires.

The discovery created an instant stir with the publication of two papers in Nature on October 28, 2004. Pictures of the skull soon graced the covers of national magazines and the little hominin got a peg in most major newspapers, leaving the primary researchers reeling. “The media attention was exhausting,” says paleoanthropologist Peter Brown of the University of New England in Australia, a colleague of the Indonesian scientists and the lead author on one of the papers. “I did more than 90 journalist interviews, and averaged four hours sleep a night over four days.” Archaeologist Mike Morwood from the University of New England, who led the Flores excavations and authored the second journal article, was similarly staggered: “We thought people would be interested in the Flores story and would regard it as a welcome break from the usual bad news, but we did not anticipate that it would be so widely and prominently reported. The popular response is just great for archaeology.”

For the media as for the scientists, the most startling thing about H. floresiensis is how recently these creatures lived. The remains of the Flores woman were not yet even fossilized—they were “as soft as wet blotting paper,” Morwood says, but surprisingly intact due to conditions in the cave. The remains of truly modern humans in the Flores cave date back 11,000 years, and evidence in Australia puts the arrival of modern man around at 50,000 years ago. Since some of the Flores bones were left there as recently as 13,000 years ago, the little lady and her kin inhabited the same region as Homo sapiens for at least 37,000 years. It is quite possible that the two species coexisted.

The discovery remains an evolutionary puzzle. H. floresiensis had tiny brains but bones built for upright walking. Africa’s Australopithecus—to which the famous Lucy belonged—is the only similarly shaped pre-human known to anthropologists, but Lucy lived 3 million years earlier.

In 1998, however, Morwood and his Indonesian colleagues from the Geological Research and Development Centre turned up 840,000-year-old tools on Flores that they suspect were made by Homo erectus, a human ancestor. In light of the new discovery, their earlier find suggests the local group of H. erectus might have spawned the little people after migrating, possibly by boat, to the island from nearby Java. The shape of the Flores skull and the facial structure support ties to H. erectus.

If this is their true origin, then H. floresiensis probably evolved its peculiarly diminutive size by a mechanism ecologists call the island rule. After long periods of isolation, breeding within a small population, and limited resources—common hazards on small islands—organisms can shift toward extreme size. Evidence of this process exists on other islands and in other Flores creatures, including the now-extinct stunted elephants (Stegadon), gigantic Komodo dragons, and oversize rats. This is the first time, however, that this strange evolutionary detour has been seen in primates.

But a small number of detractors quickly suggested that H. floresiensis represents nothing more than a group of modern humans that evolved microcephaly—shrunken heads—not a new species at all. Indonesian paleoanthropologist Teku Jacob told The Jakarta Post that the skeleton belonged to a pygmy man, not a female of a new species. Jacob has since taken hold of the bones and refuses to pass them over to the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology which has the rights to the collection and shared authorship with Brown and Morwood on the initial publications. The center recently extended Jacob’s deadline; he now has until April 1 to return the bones.

If they are descendants of H. erectus, however, the little people of Flores apparently belong to an offshoot of the evolutionary line leading to humans, a sideways branch that went extinct before it could contribute to modern human’s genetic makeup. But the miniature race may have been noticed before they died out. Myths and folklore in the region speak of little hairy people and short wild men living in caves, says Gregory Forth, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta in Canada who has been working on Flores for more than 20 years.

Finding these oddball cousins may help discredit one model of human evolution, the multiregional hypothesis, which posits that scattered and genetically distinct populations of early humans combined to give rise to modern man. For this to be true, hominids in the same region should look similar to one another. But in both shape and stature, H. floresiensis looks more like an early African human ancestor than an Indonesian H. erectus. (The Flores bones have nothing to say about the competing and widely accepted out-of-Africa model, which suggests one group of Homo sapiens emerged on that continent some 200,000 years ago and spread across the globe, replacing earlier existing hominins as they went.) Regardless of their relevance to understanding the human lineage, these forgotten relatives do suggest that other curious evolutionary experiments may be lurking in isolated locales.

The search for them is already heating up. “The history of human evolution and dispersal has clearly been much more complex than previously believed,” says Morwood. “This discovery on a remote Indonesian island indicates our level of ignorance about the archaeology of southeast Asia. There is now going to be a lot more focus on research in this region.”

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