Scientists working on a remote Indonesian island say they have uncovered the bones of a human dwarf species marooned for eons while modern man rapidly colonized the rest of the planet.
One tiny specimen, an adult measuring about 3 feet tall, is described as “the most extreme” figure to be included in the extended human family. Certainly, she is the shortest.
This hobbit-sized creature appears to have lived as recently as 18,000 years ago on the island of Flores, a kind of tropical Lost World populated by giant lizards and miniature elephants.
She is the best example of a trove of fragmented bones that account for as many as seven of these primitive creatures. Scientists have named the new species Homo floresiensis, or Flores Man. The specimens’ ages range from 95,000 to 12,000 years old.
The discovery, reported today in the journal Nature, has astonished anthropologists unlike any other find in recent memory. Flores Man is a new creature fundamentally different from modern humans. Yet he lived until the threshold of recorded human history, probably crossing paths with the ancestors of today’s islanders.
“This finding really does rewrite our knowledge of human evolution,” said Chris Stringer, who directs human origins studies at the Natural History Museum in London. “And to have them present less than 20,000 years ago is frankly astonishing.”
Flores Man was hardly formidable. His grapefruit-sized brain was about quarter the size of the brain of our species, Homo sapiens. It is closer in size to the brains of transitional prehuman species in Africa more than 3 million years ago.
Yet evidence suggests Flores Man made stone tools, lit fires and organized group hunts for meat.
Just how this primitive, remnant species managed to hang on is not clear. Geologic evidence suggests a massive volcanic eruption sealed its fate about 12,000 years ago, as it did for other unusual species on the island.
Still, researchers say the perseverance of Flores Man smashes the conventional wisdom that modern humans began to systematically crowd out other upright-walking species 160,000 years ago and have dominated the planet alone for tens of thousands of years.
And it demonstrates that Africa, the acknowledged cradle of humanity, does not hold all the answers to persistent questions of how — and where — we came to be.
“It is arguably the most significant discovery concerning our own genus in my lifetime,” said anthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University, who reviewed the research independently.
Discoveries simply “don’t get any better than that,” said Robert Foley and Marta Mirazon Lahr of Cambridge University in a written analysis.
To others, the specimen’s baffling combination of slight dimensions and coarse features bears almost no meaningful resemblance either to modern humans or to our large, archaic cousins.