A near-complete skeleton of a previously undiscovered species of human has been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, raising images of a lost world of “little people” that co-existed with modern humans until relatively recently.
The University of Wollongong and the University of New England are among the overall research team involved in what is being heralded as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in 100 years.
A team of Indonesian and Australian scientists discovered the skeleton last year, during an archaeological dig in Liang Bua, a large limestone cave on Flores, 600 km east of Bali. The skeleton was of a one-metre-tall female aged about 30, who died around 18,000 years ago. The skeleton nicknamed ‘Hobbit’ by the excavation team, is now the type specimen for a new human species Homo floresiensis.
The nearest anatomical equivalents lived in the Republic of Georgia, West Asia, almost 2 million years ago, with some features of the find harking back to 3 million year-old human ancestors in Africa. However, their existence in Southeast Asia almost up to the start of agriculture 10,000 years ago means they were contemporaries of modern humans. In fact, the two human species probably overlapped in time by tens of thousands of years.
The discovery is the cover story of this week’s edition of the authoritative British scientific journal Nature, which has reported the world’s most significant scientific discoveries since it was founded in 1869. Significantly, Nature also reported the discovery by Eugene Dubois 110 years ago of the 700,000-year-old Homo erectus “Java Man” fossils, which initiated the scientific study of human origins and evolution.
Since the time of Dubois, no new human species has been found in Southeast Asia. Now the Flores “Hobbit” is set to make her mark in our understanding of human evolution.
The Indonesian-Australian excavation team was led by archaeologists Associate Professor Mike Morwood from the University of New England and Professor R.P.Soejono from the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology. But the work is a real multi-disciplinary, as well as international, effort. As a key part of the project, Professor Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts and colleagues at the University of Wollongong are developing new techniques for the dating of Liang Bua and other important Southeast Asian sites, and their work will help to resolve long-standing problems in the archaeology of the region.
Professor Morwood said the discovery was one of the most important early hominin discoveries of the last 100 years.
“It is a new species of human who actually lived alongside us, yet were half our size. They were the height of a three-year-old child, weighed around 25kg and had a brain smaller than most chimpanzees. Even so, they used fire, made sophisticated stone tools, and hunted Stegodon (a primitive type of elephant) and giant rats. We also believe that their ancestors may have reached the island using bamboo rafts. The clear implication is that, despite tiny brains, these little humans were intelligent and almost certainly had language.”
When Thomas Sutikna and other researchers from the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology discovered the skeleton in September 2003, they first thought it was a child. However, analysis of the skeleton indicated that she was a woman aged around 30, and the possibility that the skeleton was that of a dwarf was also ruled out. Analysis also showed that there was nothing ‘freakish’ about the skeleton at all, and that she was perfectly proportioned for someone her size. The discovery of the remains of similar hobbit-sized individuals in other parts of Liang Bua, also showed that she was a member of a population of little hominins.
Previous research by Professor Morwood and an Indonesian-Australian research team in the Soa Basin of Central Flores, showed that early humans, probably Homo erectus, had arrived by 840,000 years ago. Analysis of the Liang Bua skeleton suggests that the little humans, who lived in the cave from about 95,000 to 13,000 years ago, are probably derived from this ancestral Homo erectus population.
“Hundreds of thousands of years of isolation on a relatively small and resource poor island with few predators selected for smaller body size,” said Dr Gert van den Bergh, project palaeontologist from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research.
The end result was that Flores ended up with the smallest species of human known anywhere. The same evolutionary pressures operated on Stegodon, the only other large mammal to make it to the island unassisted. The smallest known Stegodon species, about the size of a water buffalo, also evolved on Flores.
Perhaps most fascinating of all, the research team learned of local stories on Flores that suggested the “little people” may have existed on the island right up to the 16th century when Dutch traders arrived in the “Spice Islands”. Even though Professor Roberts, with Dr Chris Turney and Kira Westaway, at the University of Wollongong, have used radiocarbon and luminescence dating techniques to establish that the most recent fossil remains in the cave are 13,000 years old, the team has not ruled the possibility that the hobbit sized humans could have survived until relatively recently.
“There are lots of local folk tales in Flores about these people, which are consistent and incredibly detailed. The stories suggest there may be more than a grain of truth to the idea that they were still living on Flores up until the Dutch arrived in the 1500s,” Professor Roberts said.
“The stories suggest they lived in caves. The villagers would leave gourds with food out for them to eat, but legend has it these were the guests from hell – they’d eat everything, including the gourds!”
The research project is funded by an Australian Research Council grant with additional support from the University of New England and the University of Wollongong. The National Geographic Society is also a sponsor and has filmed a documentary that will air early next year globally and in the United States on the National Geographic Channel.
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