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 How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race 
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Post How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race
The discovery of the bones of tiny primitive people on an Indonesian island six years ago stunned scientists. Now, further research suggests that the little apemen, not Homo erectus, were the first to leave Africa and colonise other parts of the world, reports Robin McKie

Robin McKie
The Observer, Sunday 21 February 2010

It remains one of the greatest human fossil discoveries of all time. The bones of a race of tiny primitive people, who used stone tools to hunt pony-sized elephants and battle huge Komodo dragons, were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004.

The team of Australian researchers had been working in a vast limestone cavern, called Liang Bua, in one of the island's remotest areas, when one scientist ran his trowel against a piece of bone. Carefully the group began scraping away the brown clay in which pieces of a tiny skull, and a little lower jaw, were embedded.

This was not any old skull, they quickly realised. Although small, it had special characteristics. In particular, it had adult teeth. "This was no child, but a tiny adult; in fact, one of the smallest adult hominids ever found in the fossil record," says Mike Morwood, of Australia's University of Wollongong and a leader of the original Flores expedition team.

The pieces of bone were carefully wrapped in newspaper, packed in cardboard boxes and then cradled on the laps of scientists on their journey, by ferry and plane, back to Jakarta. Then the pieces of skull, as well as bones from other skeletons found in Liang Bua, were put together.

The end result caused consternation. These remains came from a species that turned out to be only three feet tall and had the brain the size of an orange. Yet it used quite sophisticated stone tools. And that was a real puzzle. How on earth could such individuals have made complex implements and survived for aeons on this remote part of the Malay archipelago?

Some simply dismissed the bones as the remains of deformed modern humans with diseases that had caused them to shrink: to them, they were just pathological oddities, it was alleged. Most researchers disagreed, however. The hobbits were the descendants of a race of far larger, ancient humans who had thrived around a million years ago. These people, known as Homo erectus, had become stranded on the island and then had shrunk in an evolutionary response to the island's limited resources.

That is odd enough. However, new evidence suggests the little folk of Flores may be even stranger in origin. According to a growing number of scientists, Homo floresiensis is probably a direct descendant of some of the first apemen to evolve on the African savannah three million years ago. These primitive hominids somehow travelled half a world from their probable birthplace in the Rift Valley to make their homes among the orangutans, giant turtles and rare birds of Indonesia before eventually reaching Flores.

It sounds improbable but the basic physical similarity between the two species is striking. Consider Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old member of Australopithecus afarensis. She had a very small brain, primitive wrists, feet and teeth and was only one metre tall, but was still declared "the grandmother of humanity" after her discovery in Ethiopia in 1974. Crucially, analysis of Lucy's skeleton shows it has great similarities with the bones of H. floresiensis, although her species died out millions of years ago while the hobbits hung on in Flores until about 17,000 years ago. This latter figure is staggeringly close in terms of recent human evolution and indicates that long after the Neanderthals, our closest evolutionary relatives, had disappeared from the face of the Earth around 35,000 years ago, these tiny, distant relatives of Homo sapiens were still living on remote Flores. :shock:

The crucial point about this interpretation is that it explains why the Flores people had such minuscule proportions. They didn't shrink but were small from the start – because they came from a very ancient lineage of little apemen. They acquired no diseased deformities, nor did they evolve a smaller stature over time. They were, in essence, an anthropological relic and Flores was an evolutionary time capsule. In research that provides further support for this idea, scientists have recently dated some stone tools on Flores as being around 1.1 million years old, far older than had been previously supposed.

The possibility that a very primitive member of the genus Homo left Africa, roughly two million years ago, and that a descendant population persisted until only several thousand years ago, is one of the more provocative hypotheses to have emerged in anthropology during the past few years," David Strait of the University of Albany told Scientific American recently. This view is backed by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London. "We are still grappling with what this discovery has done for our thinking and our conventional scenarios."

In addition, Mike Morwood says he has now uncovered stone tools on nearby Sulawesi. These could be almost two million years old, he believes, which suggests the whole region was populated by very ancient humans for a startlingly long part of human prehistory. "This is going to put the cat among the pigeons," Morwood says.

However, it is the hobbits' similarity to ancient African apemen that provides the most compelling evidence for their ancient origins. In the Journal of Human Evolution, a team led by Debbie Argue of the Australian National University, recently reported that analysis of H. floresiensis shows they most closely resemble apelike human ancestors that first appeared around 2.3 million years ago in Africa. In other words, their stock may be not quite as old as Lucy's but probably comes from a hominid, known as Homo habilis, that appeared on the evolutionary scene not long after Lucy's species disappeared. Homo habilis's features now seem to match, most closely, those of H. floresiensis.

Consider those hobbit feet, for example. The skeleton unearthed on Flores had a foot that was 20cm in length. This produces a ratio of 70 per cent when compared with the length of the hobbit's thigh bone. By contrast, men and women today have foot-to-thigh bone ratios of 55 per cent. The little folk of Flores had singularly short legs and long, flapper feet, very similar to those of African apemen, even though limbs like these would have made their long march from Africa to Flores a painful business.

Similarly, the hands of H. floresiensis were more like apes than those of evolved humans, their wrists possessing trapezoid bones that would have made the delicate art of stone tool-making very difficult. Their teeth show primitive traits while their brains were little bigger than those of chimpanzees, though CT scans of skull interiors suggest they may have had cognitive skills not possessed by apes.

Nevertheless, this little apeman, with poor physique, a chimp-sized brain and only a limited ability to make tools, now appears to have left Africa, travelled thousands of miles and somehow colonised part, if not all, of south-east Asia two million years ago. :clap

Scientists had previously assumed only a far more advanced human ancestor, such as Homo erectus, was capable of undertaking that task and only managed to do so about a million years ago when our predecessors had evolved powerful physiques, a good gait and the beginnings of intellect. Without these, we would have got nowhere, it was implied. ;)

Then along came little H. floresiensis which, quite simply, has "no business being there," says Morwood. And you can see what he means. Apart from the sheer improbability of a jumped-up ape travelling from Africa to Indonesia, there is the particular puzzle of how it got to Flores.

Primitive hominids were almost certainly incapable of sailing. So how did it arrive on the island in the first place? It is a puzzle, although Stringer believes the region's intense tectonic activity is significant. "After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, people were found far out at sea clinging to rafts of vegetation. Things like that could have happened regularly in the past and people could have been swept out to sea and washed ashore on Flores. Alternatively, there could have been short-lived connections between now separate islands."

Thus, ancient African apemen travelled half the world, made homes across Indonesia and, in one case, were washed out to sea to end up colonising a remote island that was already populated with pygmy elephants, called stegadons, and giant Komodo dragons, which are still found on the island. It is a truly fantastic tale, worthy of Rider Haggard, and it has turned the study of human evolution on its head.

And then there is the report that dates the stone tools found on Flores as being 1.1 million years old. "That is utterly remarkable on its own," adds Morwood. "Until we found these dates, the longest period of island isolation that we knew about occurred on Tasmania where the aboriginal people were cut off from mainland Australia 11,000 years ago. We thought that was an amazing length of time. But now we have found an island where early humans were cut off from the rest of evolution for more than a million years." In addition, there are those completed digs carried out by Morwood which suggest that some type of human being was making stone implements up to two million years ago. :awe

A crucial aspect to this remarkable story is the region's geography, Morwood believes. The ocean currents and the remoteness of Flores make the island difficult to get to, so once a species does get there, it will remain well protected on it, he argues. "Flores seems to protect species that are long past their use-by dates. There were those pygmy elephants, and the Komodo dragon, for example. And now we have Homo floresiensis. It may be that only a few animals get there but when they do arrive they tend to survive for a long time, which has been science's good fortune."

That is putting it mildly. Had not the original Australian team, led by Morwood, uncovered those hobbit remains in 2004, the story of humanity's African exodus would have been considered a fairly simple affair.

According to this version of events, Homo erectus evolved from apemen predecessors, such as Australopithecus africanus, in Africa and then headed off around the Old World more than a million years ago, armed with a great physique and a modest intellect. These allowed it to settle across Africa, Asia and Europe. This diaspora was then followed by a second wave of humans – our own species, Homo sapiens – which emerged from Africa 100,000 years ago and took over the planet, replacing all pockets of its predecessors it encountered.

Now a far more complex picture is emerging. Ancient apemen, who might have been thought to lack the nous for global conquest, appear to have done the trick almost a million years earlier. One of the major tenets of human evolution, the story of our world conquest, is now urgently in need of revision.

As to the fate of H. floresiensis, that is unclear. The species disappears abruptly from the archaeological record 17,000 years ago. But why? They had apparently survived quite happily on the island for more than a million years. So what did for them in the end?

There are two competing answers. The first suggests that the species, after all the good fortune that had helped it endure the vicissitudes of life in the Malay Archipelago, ran out of luck. "There is a thick layer of ash in the Liang Bua cave above the most recent hobbit remains," says Stringer. "We now know this was caused by a major volcanic eruption which occurred about 17,000 years ago. So it may be that they were just unlucky with the local geology." According to this vision, the little folk of Flores were wiped out by choking plumes of volcanic ash or died of starvation on an island denuded of vegetation.

It would have been a pretty terrible way to go. Yet neither Stringer nor Morwood is convinced that was what happened, despite the tight link between dates of eruptions on the island and the disappearance of the species from the fossil record. Instead, they suspect a very different agent: the bloody hand of modern humans. "Look at our track record," says Morwood. When Homo sapiens entered Europe 40,000 years ago, on its route out of Africa, they would have encountered the continent's original inhabitants, the Neanderthals. Within a few millenniums, the Neanderthals had been rendered extinct.

Stringer agrees. Homo sapiens left Africa about 100,000 years ago and by the time hobbits became extinct on Flores, modern humans were all over south-east Asia. "I cannot see Homo floresiensis keeping modern humans off the island. There must have been encounters between them and us. It is wonderful to speculate what might have happened when they met up, but I suspect that those moderns used up the resources that the hobbit needed to survive." :candle

Robin McKie is the science editor of the Observer

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

Wed Feb 24, 2010 11:46 am
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Post Re: How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race
Hobbit debate goes out on some limbs
Arm and leg fossils may, or may not, come from nonhuman hominid

By Bruce Bower Web edition : Monday, April 19th, 2010 Text Size

ALBUQUERQUE — Two fossil hobbits have given what’s left of their arms and legs to science. That wasn’t enough, though, to quell debate over hobbits’ evolutionary status at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists on April 17.

Since 2004, the discoverers of unusual “hobbit” fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores have attributed their find to a pint-sized species, Homo floresiensis, that lived there from 95,000 to 17,000 years ago. These researchers also suspect, on the basis of hobbit anatomy and recent stone tool discoveries on Flores, that H. floresiensis evolved from a currently unknown hominid species that migrated from Africa to Indonesia more than 1 million years ago.

Critics say the finds represent nothing more than human pygmies like those still living on Flores. In their opinion, the centerpiece hobbit find — a partial skeleton of an adult female known as LB1 — is what’s left of a woman who suffered from a developmental disorder that resulted in an unusually small brain and a misshapen skull and lower body. :hmm

But arm and leg fossils from LB1 and a second hobbit appear robust, not unhealthy, according to a new study directed by William Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York. The bones display humanlike thickness in the tough tissue that forms the outer shell of most bones, and opposite sides of the limb bones exhibit comparable thickness, a sign of healthy growth, said Stony Brook anthropologist and study coauthor Frederick Grine, who presented Jungers’ paper at the meeting.

Hobbits also possessed much stronger limbs relative to body weight than either Homo sapiens or its presumed predecessor, Homo erectus, Jungers’ team concluded.

Limb strength for H. floresiensis approaches that previously estimated for more ancient hominid species such as the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis — a.k.a. Lucy — and 2.3-million-year-old Homo habilis, according to Junger’s analysis.

These results imply that hobbits were able to engage in vigorous physical activities that neither modern humans nor H. erectus could manage. Hobbits may have spent much of their time climbing trees, as Lucy’s kind did, the Stony Brook researchers propose.

Hobbits’ mix of humanlike and Lucy-like limb traits fits with Jungers’ recent proposal that a primitive, currently unknown hominid species trekked from Africa to Flores at least 1.8 million years ago and evolved into H. floresiensis. Earlier suggestions that hobbits descended from H. erectus (SN: 10/30/04, p. 275) have been dropped.

Junger’s group used computerized tomography images to calculate bone thickness at points along the length of six hobbit bones from the upper arm and the upper and lower leg. Five fossils came from LB1 and one came from another hobbit adult. The researchers then compared these data to corresponding measures for Lucy, H. habilis and several hundred people from different parts of the world, including Indonesian pygmies now living on the Andaman Islands.

Estimates of arm and leg strength for LB1 were generated by comparing her bone thickness to her height and weight — roughly 3 feet, 5 inches and 66 pounds, according to Jungers. But hobbit skeptics put LB1’s height at 4 feet or more, a stature that would imply weaker limbs than the Stony Brook researchers contend.

In another meeting presentation, Robert Eckhardt of Pennsylvania State University in University Park argued that a developmental disorder produced a suite of skeletal abnormalities in LB1 (SN: 11/18/06, p. 330), including irregularly shaped hip joints and tube-shaped upper leg bones. Junger’s new limb-bone analysis doesn’t address those points, Eckhardt said.

A variety of developmental disorders produce skeletal traits in people today that Jungers has labeled as exclusive to H. floresiensis, Eckhardt added.

At the meeting, he described the case of a woman with a developmental disorder that resulted in an S-shaped collar bone. Jungers’ team includes this characteristic in a list of hobbit-specific skeletal features.

This new twist in the hobbit controversy follows the March 17 online publication of a paper in Nature concluding that hominids reached Flores by 1 million years ago. Excavations on Flores yielded stone tools from sediment dating to that time, reported Adam Brumm of the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Brumm previously uncovered 800,000-year-old stone artifacts on Flores (SN: 6/3/06, p. 341). He now suspects hominids reached the island as early as 2 million years ago. :awe

Brumm’s contention has been challenged by colleagues who believe natural processes may have moved the artifacts from younger to older sediment layers.

Earthquakes and flooding are two of many possible ways in which stone artifacts could have been moved on Flores, noted James Phillips of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

If Brumm is right, only further fossil finds can determine what type of hominids reached Flores by 1 million years ago, remarked Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. “Until we get that evidence, we’re stumbling in the dark,” he says

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

Thu Apr 22, 2010 10:43 am
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Post Re: How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race
'Hobbit' Was an Iodine-Deficient Human, Not Another Species, New Study Suggests

ScienceDaily (Sep. 28, 2010) — A new paper is set to re-ignite debate over the origins of so-called Homo floresiensis -- the 'hobbit' that some scientists have claimed as a new species of human.

The University of Western Australia's Emeritus Professor Charles Oxnard and his colleagues, in a paper in PLoS ONE have reconfirmed, on the post-cranial skeleton, their original finding on the skull that Homo floresiensis in fact bears the hallmarks of humans -- Homo sapiens -- affected by hypothyroid cretinism.


"Cretinism is caused by various environmental factors including iodine deficiency -- a deficiency which would have been present on Flores at the period to which the dwarfed Flores fossils are dated.

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The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. - FDR

Fri Oct 01, 2010 10:55 am
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