From: Michael Perry, Reuters
Published October 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Scientists Hope to Find More Tiny Indonesia Hominids

SYDNEY, Australia — Australian scientists who found a new species of hobbit-sized humans who lived about 13,000 years ago on an Indonesian island said on Thursday they expect to discover more new species of hominids on neighboring islands.


The partial skeleton of Homo floresiensis, found in a cave on the island of Flores in 2003, was of an adult female that was a meter (3 feet) tall, had a brain smaller than a chimpanzee's, and probably lived alongside modern humans on the island.


Australian and Indonesian scientists have since unearthed seven small hominids called "Flores man" from the Liang Bua limestone cave, the youngest living 13,000 years ago.


"The finding of this distinctive human species, this endemic human species on Flores, also implies that there will be similar endemic species on other islands in that vicinity," project leader Mike Morwood, associate professor in archaeology at Australia's University of New England, said on Thursday.


"So, you're likely to have a distinctive little hominid population on Lombok, on Sumbawa, on Timor, and on Sulawesi, and each of those will be distinct species, because they will have evolved in isolation," he told a news conference in Sydney.


"Flores man" is thought to be a descendent of Homo erectus, which had a large brain, was the size of modern humans, and spread out from Africa to Asia about 2 million years ago.


Morwood said the discovery of hominids on Flores was unexpected, as no Asian land animal at the time had crossed the sea to the islands in eastern Indonesia and hominids were not believed to be developed enough to build and sail a craft.


But if Homo erectus reached Flores and evolved into Flores man, then others probably reached nearby islands and also evolved into new human species. Legends tell of small, humanlike creatures existing on eastern islands long ago.


The discovery of hominids in Southeast Asia almost to the start of agriculture 10,000 years ago means they were "contemporaries of modern humans," said Morwood, and added another piece to the complex puzzle of human evolution.


Hunting Stegodons


The hominid family tree, which includes humans and pre-humans, diverged from chimpanzees about 7 million years ago.


Morwood said the "Flores man" evolved in isolation, becoming so small because of environmental conditions such as food shortages and a lack of predators.


Scientists have pieced together an image of a hairless, dark-skinned dwarf species with a head the size of a grapefruit, sunken eyes, a flat nose, and large teeth and mouth projecting forward with virtually no chin.


What surprised scientists was that despite the shrinking of the brain, "Flores man" still performed complex tasks like making miniature stone tools, hunting miniature Stegodon elephants and giant Komodo dragons, and using fire to cook.


"They were making sophisticated stone tools, some of which appear to be directly associated with the hunting of big game like Stegodon, like Komodo dragon ... and for butchering these large animals," said Morwood. "So despite very, very small brains, this hominid population was doing sophisticated things," he said.


The remains discovered have been dated as old as 95,000 years and as young as 13,000 years ago, meaning the Flores man's time overlaps modern humans by about 40,000 years, but it is not clear whether there was any interaction between the two on Flores.


Scientists suspect Flores man became extinct after a massive volcanic eruption on the island around 12,000 years ago, but local folk tales suggest the hominids may have still been living on Flores up until the Dutch arrived in the 1500s.


The expedition discovered Flores man while looking for records of modern human migration to Asia. The hominid find was reported in the latest edition of science journal Nature.


Source: Reuters


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