How a hobbit is rewriting the history of the human race

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

At first, researchers assumed that the “hobbit” of Flores was an island-dwarf variant of Homo erectus, but now it looks like Homo floresiensis descended directly from the also-tiny Australopithecus:

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.

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.

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