The remains of Homo floresiensis, discovered at Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, and of Homo naledi, discovered inside the Rising Star Cave in South Africa’s Cradle of Humankind, have played an important part in helping us understand the diversity and complexity of our hominin past.
H. floresiensis, dubbed ‘The Hobbit’ by the media because of its diminutive size, with a brain capacity of around 380 cm3 and standing around a metre tall, was considered by many scientists to be a deformed or microcephalic H. sapiens. However, strong physical evidence such as humeral torsion[i] and a set of teeth unique among hominins[ii] has pretty well ended the debate about its status as a species in its own right. The main disagreement now, considering the size of its brain, is whether or not it should be included in the genus Homo.
And speaking of small brains …
H. naledi was half again as tall as H. floresiensis – about the same height as a large chimpanzee – and although its cranial capacity (between 460 cm3 and 610 cm3) was considerably bigger than the Hobbit’s, it was still well short of a modern human or any of our immediate cousins such as H. neanderthalensis.
As I wrote in a previous post, however, brain size is not necessarily a reliable indicator of intelligence.[iii]H. floresiensis almost certainly made and used stone tools[iv], and recently the University of Witwatersrand’s Lee Berger announced that researchers had found evidence of fire being used by H. naledi[v]. This last was probably something of a given, since the remains of H. naledi were found in a chamber of the Rising Star Cave that could only be reached through a long, dark and twisting route that was difficult and dangerous to follow even with artificial light – without some kind of illumination it would have been virtually impossible. Still, this recent evidence adds weight to the case that this species was capable of making and using fire.
As friend and palaeoanthropologist Debbie Argue asks, however, when and how did H. naledi learn to make fire? Could they possibly have acquired the skill from a contemporary hominin, such as H. sapiens? Or was it the other way around? Or did both species learn the trick from a third hominin group?
We’ll probably never know the answer to this question, but it is fun thinking about, and – at the risk of stretching a metaphor almost to breaking point – throws another log on the fire of revaluating exactly what it means to be human.
One of the great palaeoanthropological bombshells of the last generation was the discovery of Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores. For years scientists debated what ancestor this new and somewhat diminutive hominin – dubbed the ‘Hobbit’ by the media – had come from, or indeed if it should even be included in our genus.
While now generally accepted as a member of our broader tribe, its origins are still fiercely argued, many insisting it’s nothing more than H. erectus that’s undergone insular dwarfism. But I think a 2017 paper written by Colin Groves, Debbie Argue, Michael Lee and William Jungers, convincingly demonstrates that H. floresiensis is not derived from H. erectus (or is a diseased example of H. sapiens), but rather from a much earlier hominim such as H. habilis or a sister species.[i]
A second paper, published in 2020[ii], backs up this hypothesis, and concludes with this statement:
‘ … something which on account of our inadequate current taxonomic framework we have to call “early Homo” differentiated in Africa, possibly as early as 2.8 (mya) … Subsequently, one or more members of this group reached the Mediterranean fringe and spread Out of Africa at 2.5 Ma. After successfully expanding over Asia, at least one of those hominins … gave rise to new species that reached the Caucasus by around 1.8 (mya), and thence Europe by ca. 0.9 (mya) … (the) eastward expansion (or occupation) in Asia of small-bodied and archaically-proportioned hominins continued, possibly in multiple waves; and, by ca. 0.8 (mya), representatives of this group had penetrated as far as insular southeast Asia, where H. floresiensis ultimately emerged … ’
Indeed, some scientists considered this possibility as early as 2005. A report about the brain of H. floresiensis published in Science in that year[iii] concludes with these lines: ‘Although it is possible that H. floresiensis represented an endemic island dwarf that, over time, became subject to unusual allometric constraints, an alternative hypothesis is that H. erectus and H. floresiensis may have shared a common ancestor that was an unknown small-bodied and small-brained hominin.’
I think an increasing weight of evidence strongly suggests that the first major exodus of our genus from Africa was carried out by H. habilis or one or more of her sisters. Furthermore, I think it’s possible that these closely related species then gave rise to H. erectus, H. pekinensis, H. luzonensis[iv] and H. floresiensis in Eurasia, while those remaining in Africa gave rise to H. ergaster. This does not preclude the possibility, or perhaps probability, of any or all of these species crossbreeding if they ran across each other.
But what of H. sapiens, our own species? As with H. ergaster and H. erectus, the evidence here is convoluted, confusing and often contradictory.
For those, like Colin Groves, who think H. ergaster is a species in its own right, the line of descent works something like the following.
About 600,000 years ago, H. ergaster, either directly or through an intermediary species called H. rhodesiensis, gave rise to H. heidelbergensis. This species was our size physically, and his brain capacity was well inside the standards of Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH). Following the great tradition of hominin migration, something that seems as ingrained in our genus as bipedalism, some members of this new species moved to Europe[v]. About 400,000 years ago, they gave rise to H. neanderthalensis. In a case of ‘well, we’ll show you’, those who stayed behind in Africa gave rise to H. sapiens at least 300,000 years ago, and possibly as long as 350,000 years ago.[vi]
I can’t stress this enough. Homo sapiens are Africans. It is where our archaic ancestors and AMH first appear[vii]. (Let me also stress that this story, as complicated as it gets from now on, does not resurrect the Multiregional Model for our evolution, where H. erectus gave rise to H. sapiens across its whole range at the same time, from Africa to Asia. This is an old theory, now largely discredited by the extensive fossil and DNA evidence that our species first evolved in Africa.[viii])
What happened next has been slowly and painstakingly uncovered by palaeoanthropologists doing field work throughout Africa and Eurasia, and by the outstanding work performed at the Max Planck Institute’s Department of Evolutionary Genetics, headed up by Svante Pääbo, into hominin DNA.[ix]
What the DNA evidence strongly suggests is that H. sapiens successfully left Africa between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago. (Although this wasn’t the first migration into Eurasia by our species. It is usually held that previous attempts left no trace in the DNA of AMH outside of Africa, but see these earlier posts, here and here.)
Members of the most recent migration interbred with H. neanderthalensis, probably in what is now the Middle East, and later with the Denisovans, another possible descendant of H. heidelbergensis, deeper in Eurasia[x]. To this day, the average ex-African H. sapiens carries between 1%-2% of the Neanderthal genome; but it is not the same one or two percent: we overlap. Overall, we carry up to 40% of the Neanderthal genome in our own genes. But the story gets more complex still: the genome of people from Oceania, such as Papuan New Guineans and Australian Aborigines, can have between 5-6% Denisovan DNA[xi]; indeed, recent research suggests that Ayta Magbukon Negritos in the Philippines have Denisovan ancestry 30-40% higher than either of these two groups.
The Natural History Museum of London’s Professor Chris Stringer says, ‘It is now clear there was a lot more interbreeding between ancient species, including early Homo sapiens and others, and that there was a lot more movement of populations both in the distant past – and relatively recently.’[xii]
Talking about recent research, in June last year Chinese scientists announced that a cranium first discovered in China almost a century ago, is a new species of Homo with a brain easily the equal of any AMH in size and carried inside a skull more massive than ours. Those making the announcement have named the new species H. longi (‘Dragon man’, and just as Denisovans are sometimes described as a sister species to Neanderthal, so H. longi is being claimed as a sister species to H. sapiens[xiii]).
As Lee Berger, from the University of Witwatersrand and the discoverer of Australopithecus sediba and H. naledi, has suggested, perhaps the different paths of human evolution are not best thought of as branches spreading from a single tree trunk, or even a messy, many-twigged bush, but rather a braided stream[xiv] with tributaries constantly running across each other before separating, rejoining and separating once more.
We, Anatomically Modern Humans, are the result of all this evolution. We are nothing more than a mongrel species.
And this from the Australian Museum: ‘Most scientists that accept H. floresiensis as a legitimate species now think its ancestor may have come from an early African dispersal by a primitive Homo species similar in appearance to H. habilis or the Dmanisi hominins. This means that it shared a common ancestor with Asian H. erectus but was not descended from it. Cladistic analysis supports the lack of a close relationship with H. erectus.’
[v] The first H. heidelbergensis fossils were found near Heidelberg in 1907.
[vi] Although this paper suggests the split between our two species might be found much further back … up to 800,000 kya or more!
[vii]Recent research from scientists at Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research reveals that southern Africa is home to the oldest evidence for AMH: ‘… to contemporary populations that represent the earliest branch of human genetic phylogeny.’ The date they arrive at is 200,000 years ago.
As well, a report in the February issue of Science describes how thousands of genome sequences were collected from modern and ancient humans to create a family tree. In the words of the report’s first author, Anthony Wilder Wohns, ‘ … we definitely see overwhelming evidence of the Out-of-Africa event … ‘
[viii] See Stringer, C. & Andrews, P. The Complete World of Human Evolution. London, 2011. P 140 ff for a discussion of the two main theories for the evolution of Home sapiens: ‘Multiregional’ and ‘Out of Africa’.
[ix] And now, besides DNA, they are using protein analysis to identify ancient hominins, most recently the first Denisovan found outside of the Denisova Cave in Siberia … on the Tibetan Plateau of all places! See https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1139-x, 16 May 2019.
[x]Very recently, H. sapiens remains were discovered in the Grotte Mandrin rock shelter in the Rhône Valley in France that date back 54,000 years ago, pushing back our species arrival in Europe by at leat 10,000 years from previous estimates.
[xi] Please watch this fascinating talk Svante Pääbo gave at the University of California in 2018 after receiving the Nierenberg Award for Science in the Public Interest. It goes into all of this in much more detail. As Pääbo points out in the talk, the DNA evidence indicates humans ‘have always mixed’.
Updating my blog celebrating the 10th anniversary of the discovery of Homo floresiensis, better known as the ‘Hobbit’, a letter in Nature has revised the most recent dates for the remains from 12,000 years back to 60,000 years. The sediment layers in the cave of Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores, where the remains were discovered, had not been laid evenly, leading to an initial miscalculation.
Stone artefacts attributed to H. floresiensis are dated more recently, to 50,000 years ago.
The biggest implication of the new dates is that it is now less likely that the ‘Hobbit’ coexisted at the same time as H. sapiens on Flores. Although it cannot be ruled out, the earliest dates for human occupation at Flores is 50,000 years, leaving a very narrow window of opportunity.
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.]