It wasn’t as momentous as Copernicus displacing Earth from the centre of the universe, or Darwin displacing humans from the centre of creation, but ten years ago a team of Australian and Indonesian palaeontologsits announced a discovery that changed the way scientists view not just the history of humans, but the history of the entire human clade. If Darwin’s On the Origin of Species started an earthquake, then the discovery of a recently extinct tiny-limbed and tiny-brained human on the Indonesian island of Flores started a serious tremor.
The waves from that tremor are still rippling through palaeontology. Some scientists argue that the new human, dubbed Homo floresiensis but more often referred to as the Hobbit in popular media, is nothing more than a diseased remnant of an isolated population of modern humans. It does seem, however, that proponents of this hypothesis are increasingly desperate to prove their case. The most recent argument is that the remains display classical symptoms of Downs syndrome. I’m still waiting for them to wheel out childhood smoking as the cause for the Hobbit’s miniature status.
It seems to me that the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of Homo floresiensis being a new member of the human family. It has no chin, its leg bones are unusually thick, and its wrist bones more closely resemble those of an African ape or group of ancient humans called Australopithecines.
Another piece of evidence that H. floresiensis was not a dwarf or diseased version of H. sapiens is the stone implements found with the remains. These tools are the size you’d expect them to be if made by and for humans around a metre tall. More importantly, they and the bones were found in strata laid down as long ago as 95,000 years ago. Modern humans did not arrive in Indonesia until about 45,000 years ago.
The great mystery surrounding H. floresiensis is where exactly it fits in the human clade. Most evidence suggests it is a very primitive member of the genus Homo, but perhaps, just perhaps, it belongs in the group of Australopithecines with A. afarensis and A. africanus.
The one outstanding fact about this tiny cousin of ours is that it may have survived at least until 18,000 years ago, and possibly even as recently as 12,000 years ago. The Neanderthals, our closest relative among all the species of humans that have walked the Earth, died out not later than 35,000 years ago.
Homo floresiensis was a true survivor.
[For more information about the discovery of the Hobbit, go here. For more information about the history of the debate on whether or not the Hobbit is a new species, go here.]