How about those little people?

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Homo floresiensis

“Currently, it is widely accepted that only one hominin genus, Homo, was present in Pleistocene Asia, represented by two species, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Both species are characterized by greater brain size, increased body height and smaller teeth relative to Pliocene Australopithecus in Africa. Here we report the discovery, from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia, of an adult hominin with stature and endocranial volume approximating 1 m and 380 cm3, respectively—equal to the smallest-known australopithecines. The combination of primitive and derived features assigns this hominin to a new species, Homo floresiensis. The most likely explanation for its existence on Flores is long-term isolation, with subsequent endemic dwarfing, of an ancestral H. erectus population. Importantly, H. floresiensis shows that the genus Homo is morphologically more varied and flexible in its adaptive responses than previously thought.”

This is the complete Abstract from Nature, Vol 431, October 28, 2004, of the article titled: “A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia” by P. Brown and M. J. Morwood, both from Archaeology & Palaeoanthropology, School of Human & Environmental Studies, University of New England, Armidale, New South Wales 2351, Australia, and T. Sutikna, R. P.Soejono, Jatmiko, E. Wayhu Saptomo, and Rokus Awe Due from Indonesian Centre for Archaeology, Jl. Raya Condet Pejaten No. 4, Jakarta 12001, Indonesia.

I give you this detail so there will be no doubt about the authenticity of the information contained in this article. About a year ago these guys really did discover remains that clearly can be interpreted as evidence for another species of “human” that existed alongside our own ancestors during the last hundred thousand years or so of our existence.

Michael Morwood and Peter Brown, who head the investigative team of scientists that made this discovery, have now added to their report from last year. In the October 13, 2005, Nature these scientists report that they have discovered further evidence of these “little people,” dubbed “Hobbits” by the popular press.

What they actually found was a lower jaw that was identical to one found last year, but radio-carbon dated as three thousand years younger. The bones discovered thus far seem to come from at least ten individuals over a period ranging from 95,000 to about 12,000 years ago.

These Hobbits were about three feet tall with heads about the size of grapefruits, chimpanzee-sized but with human proportions. They would appear to our modern eyes very much like miniature humans, or child-sized adults. At this time it is difficult to say much about their intelligence, but there is no real reason to believe that they were very much different from modern humans.

The discovered bones include several very well developed stone tools that clearly indicate a relatively “sophisticated” society of little people who apparently lived alongside their taller brothers. Information about these little folk is still so sketchy that we cannot say whether or not they coexisted peacefully or at war. What we can say is that – based upon everything we know about human nature and our known history – the extinction of these pint-sized humans may very well have been at the hands of our own ancestors.

Since they appear to have been confined to the Indonesian island Flores, this small population had no real chance to spread out beyond the confines of its origin, and so met with eventual obliteration, probably (as I surmised) at the hands of our own distant relatives.

Since this is science, and since we are dealing with surmise – albeit very sophisticated surmise – not everyone agrees with Brown and colleagues. In fact, two separate groups of scientists from Indonesia, Australia, the United States, and Great Briton have announced that they will shortly publish differing interpretations of the evidence from Flores that points towards nothing more than a group of aberrant humans that lived in relative isolation sufficiently long to establish the discovered remains.

Robert D. Martin, who is a biological anthropologist and provost at the Field Museum in Chicago indicated to the New York Times as reported by John Wilford, that a more likely explanation for the size of the Hobbits may be “island dwarfing,” which is a situation where long-term isolated animals and people tend to evolve smaller bodies, where their growth is constrained by limited resources. Martin’s viewpoint represents the sense of the opposition in this matter.

Nevertheless, any serious opposition needs to explain the nearly 100,000 year train of fossil evidence. And Brown and colleagues need to find one or more older fossils that clearly belong to the same species. If these older fossils turn out to be larger than those already found, then island dwarfing is the more likely explanation. On the other hand, if they are substantially the same size or even smaller, then the opposition will have to come up with another reasonable way to explain the evidence.

This is science at work, folks – raw, unadulterated, exciting science at its best. Nobody here is suggesting that some preexisting “intelligent design” has been at play. Nobody is suggesting that Brown and his colleagues are playing tricks on the world, nor do Brown and his guys believe that Martin and the rest of the opposition are out to get them, or to ruin their careers.

What we have, plain and simple, is newly discovered evidence that needs to be fit into our current picture of how humans developed. What makes this especially interesting is that this new evidence has the potential for upsetting several well-established lines of thought, with unpredictable results. When the dust settles – and it will, eventually – our understanding of how we humans came to be will be more complete. We will have a firmer grasp on what took place during the dim eons of our distant past.

Will this matter for you and me in our daily existence today? Of course not; but part of what we are takes great delight in being able to say: “I know how I got here.”

So, how about those little people? Part of me will always wonder what might have happened had they developed a better spear or even a bow.

Would we both be here today – or would the little people rule?

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