Surprise Discovery Rewrites Human History

In what could be one of the most astounding discoveries ever regarding human evolutionary history, anthropologists have discovered the remains of a hominin they have named Homo floresiensis that apparently lived up to about 13,000 years ago. H. floresiensis lived on the island of Flores, east of Java, in Indonesia. The hominin stood only about one meter tall and had a brain the size of a grape fruit, but it walked on two legs and used stone tools and weapons.

So how are these creatures related to humans, and why the big deal? Until now, scientists thought that Homo sapiens sapiens (the subspecies sapiens of the species sapiens of the genus Homo) – in other words, modern humans – was the only species of several different hominin cousins to survive after about 160,000 years ago. Scientists believed that modern humans alone flourished and advanced quickly from then until now to become the dominant species on earth.

This simple history of humanity has been textbook material for several decades now, but because the H. floresiensis remains have been dated to only 18,000 years old this suggests a much more complicated history for humanity. In fact, modern humans began to arrive on Flores long before then, so it is likely that they may have come into contact with H. floresiensis. How might such contact have gone? The discovery also begs the question, how did H. floresiensis get to Flores? The researchers believe that perhaps 800,000 years ago, members of another species of hominins, H. erectus, may have used boats to travel to the island. Isolated from the rest of the world on this island, the species gradually shrank in size due to the scarcity of resources. This process is well known in biology as “island dwarfism” and is common among mammal species stranded on islands for long periods of times. For example, H. floresiensis apparently hunted Stegodon, a extinct dwarf elephant whose remains have also been found in the same deposits on Flores. Island dwarfism has not been previously documented in hominin species.

The discovery was made a little over a year ago and the research was published in the October 27, 2004 issue of Nature. The scientists believe there are future discoveries to be made of other cousin species to modern humans that survived until quite recently. They also believe that this discovery proves our genus, Homo, is much more dynamic, varied, and flexible than previously considered. National Geographic has an artist’s rendition of H. floresiensis on their website, along with a small gallery of images of the skull. In early 2005 they will air a program about the discovery on the National Geographic Channel.

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