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Athena Review, Vol. 4, No.1: Recent finds in archaeology

Homo floresiensis: A miniature human relation from Flores

The smallest human species ever known appears to be descended from Homo erectus:  Recent excavations on the remote island of Flores in the Indonesian archipelago, near the islands of Bali and Java, have uncovered the fossil skeletons of ancient humans no bigger than a 3-year old child of today. Considerably smaller than pygmies of the African rain forest, these are the tiniest humans ever discovered. The initial discoveries of an adult skull and partial skeleton were made in September 2003  in the Liang Bua Cave on Flores, by a team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists from the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, led by Michael Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia.

These researchers, announcing their discovery in Nature (28 Oct. 2004), have concluded that the skeletons, which contain a mixture of primitive and advanced anatomical features, probably evolved from a Homo erectus population which reached Flores by 840,000 years ago, as previously reported by Morwood and his colleagues (1998). Similar to the reduction of other large, ancient animal populations who moved to island settings, the extreme isolation of the island exerted evolutionary pressures resulting in dwarfism in the humans. The new finds represent a completely new species of humans, which has been named Homo florensiensis after the island on which they were found.

The miniature humans had only a chimp-size brain (about 1/3 the size of modern humans), but still had the mental capability to produce a varied tool kit, including blades, perforators, and points, which appear more sophisticated than those made by Homo erectus. Despite their small size, the archaic Flores people were able to successfully hunt primitive dwarf elephants called stegodons, showing a certain degree of communication and planning. The cave sediments in which the skeletons were found also contained evidence of hearths, and the bones of giant rodents and Komodo dragons. Even more amazingly, Homo florensiensis appears to have been present on Flores from 95,000 BP until as recently as 13,000 years ago. The existence of a more primitive species of humans at the same time as modern Homo sapiens is changing scientists’ perspective on the variation and adaptability of the genus Homo.

[Brown, P. , M. Morwood, et al, Nature, 28 Oct. 2004;  Morwood, M. et al. 1998. “Fission-track ages of stone tools and fossils on the east Indonesian island of Flores.” Nature 392: 173-176.]

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