Monday, June 12, 2006

'Hobbit' hominids

This is an interesting find that adds to my previous post that may bring more of the puzzle pieces together:

"'Hobbit' hominids trigger giant row

Thu, 01 Jun 2006

Anthropologists have traded new blows over the remains of dwarf humans whose discovery on a remote Indonesian island blasted a hole in theories about the Ascent of Man.

Dubbed "hobbits" after the wee folk of J.R.R. Tolkien's tale, the hominids, discovered in 2003, measured only about a metre tall and had a skull about the size of a grapefruit.

The bones of at least nine individuals were found in a cave in the island of Flores, lying in sediments carbon-dated to around 18 000 years old. Near these remains were sophisticated stone tools and butchered animals, including a now-extinct miniature elephant.

Their discoverers claim the hominid, which they have honoured as Homo floresiensis, was a separate species of human who descended from Homo erectus, which is also the ancestor of modern man.

That assertion ignited a fierce row.

If true, it would mean that Homo sapiens, who are believed to have been around for 150 000 — 200 000 years, would have shared the planet with rival humans far more recently than anyone had thought.

And it would raise the vexing question as to whether H. sapiens and H. floresiensis interbred, which would presumably have left "hobbit" genes in our genetic code today.

In the past months, the scientific journals have blazed with debate. The exchange has sometimes seethed with barbed accusations about denial of access to the Liang Bua cave and to the now-famous fossils themselves.

Three weeks ago, primatologists led by Robert Martin of the highly regarded Field Museum in Chicago savaged the Flores claims as "media hype" and — the thermonuclear insult in anthropology — as bad science.

Martin said the Flores hominids were not a separate species but quite simply Homo sapiens who suffered from a pathological condition called microcephaly, which results in a small brain and body.

And he rubbished the notion that the large, complex tools found in the cave could have been created and used by a species with such tiny brains.

Given the dating of these tools, only H. sapiens, who presumably came to the cave after the pint-sized hominids had left or died out, could have had this ability, he said.

The rebuttal has been almost instant.

In a paper published on Thursday in the British science journal Nature, a team led by Adam Brumm of the Australian National University in Canberra take aim at what they call "lingering doubts" about the tools.

Their team — who include Mike Morwood, a University of New England professor who directed the original dig — examined 507 artefacts found at Mata Menge, 50 kilometres from the Liang Bua cave and dated as more than 800 000 years old.

Even though hundreds of thousands of years separate the Mata Menga and Liang Bua artefacts, there are remarkable similarities in the flint tools, in the choice of material and the angle and shape of the blade.

For Brumm, this means that H. floresiensis picked up the tool-making skills from their ancestors, H. erectus, who lived on Flores before changes in food supply forced the hominids to gradually downsize, becoming the little people found in 2003.

The study fires an appropriately lapidary volley at Hobbit-doubters.

"Pronouncements that H. floresiensis lacked the brain size necessary to make stone artefacts are... based on preconceptions rather than actual evidence," it says."

View Article Here

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