Scientists Find Skeletons of Miniature People
October 27, 2004
By NICHOLAS WADE
Once upon a time, but not so long ago, in a tropical island
midway between Asia and Australia, there lived a race of
little people, whose adults stood just three and a half
feet high. Despite their stature, they were mighty hunters.
They made stone tools with which they speared giant rats,
clubbed sleeping dragons, and hunted the packs of pygmy
elephants that roamed their lost world.
Strangest of all, this is no fable. Skeletons of these
miniature people have been excavated from a limestone cave
on Flores, an island 370 miles east of Bali, by a team of
Australian and Indonesian archaeologists. Reporting their
find in today's issue of Nature, they assign the people to
a new human species, Homo floresiensis.
The little Floresians lived on the island until at least
13,000 years ago, and possibly to historic times. But they
were not a pygmy form of modern humans. They were a
downsized version of Homo erectus, the eastern cousin of
the Neanderthals of Europe. Their discovery means that
archaic humans, who left Africa a million years or so
earlier than modern people, survived far longer into the
modern period than was previously supposed.
The island of Flores is very isolated and, before modern
times, was inhabited only by a select group of animals that
managed to reach it. These then became subject to unusual
evolutionary forces that propelled some toward giantism and
The carnivorous lizards that reached Flores, perhaps on
natural rafts, became giant-sized and still survive, though
now confined mostly to the nearby island of Komodo; they
are called Komodo dragons. Elephants are excellent
swimmers; those that reached Flores evolved to a dwarf form
the size of an ox.
Previous excavations by Dr. Mike J. Morwood, a member of
the team that found the little Floresians, showed that Homo
erectus had arrived on Flores by 840,000 years ago, to
judge from the evidence of crude stone tools. Presumably
the descendants of these Homo erectus became subject to the
same evolutionary forces that downsized the elephants.
In a written commentary accompanying the article, two
anthropologists not connected with the find, Dr. Marta
Mirazon Lahr and Dr. Robert Foley of the University of
Cambridge, say it is "among the most outstanding
discoveries in paleoanthropology for half a century."
The first little Floresian, an adult female, was found in
September 2003, buried under about 20 feet of silt that
coats the floor of the Liang Bua cave in Flores. A team of
paleoanthropologists headed by Dr. Peter Brown, of the
University of New England in Armidale, Australia,
identifies the skeleton, which is not fossilized, as a very
small but otherwise individual, similar to Homo erectus.
Because the downsizing is so extreme - smaller than modern
human pygmies - they assign it to a new species.
In a companion report Dr. Morwood, an archaeologist who is
also at the University of New England, estimates that the
skeleton is 18,000 years old. He has since found the
remains of six more individuals in the cave, with dates
ranging from 95,000 to 13,000 years ago, he said in an
Also buried in the cave are a number of objects that
illustrate how the little Floresians lived. There are bones
of Komodo dragons, beasts 10 feet in length, and of an even
larger lizard. The dragons can eat animals the size of
deer, but as cold-blooded animals they are sluggish at low
temperatures and not so hard to kill.
There are bones of the pygmy elephant, giant rat, fish and
birds. There is evidence the Floresians knew the use of
fire. And there is a suite of stone tools, considerably
more sophisticated than any yet known to have been made by
Homo erectus. The tools include small blades that might
have been mounted on wooden shafts.
If the stone tools were made by the little Floresians, as
Dr. Morwood believes, that is striking evidence of their
cognitive abilities. Dr. Morwood says they must have hunted
cooperatively to bring down the pygmy elephants. To conduct
such hunts, and to fabricate such complex stone tools, they
almost certainly had some form of language, he said.
This will be a surprising finding, if true, because the
little people have brains slightly smaller than a
chimpanzee and similar in size to Australopithecenes, the
apelike ancestors of the human line.
Dr. Foley said he would not rule out Dr. Morwood's
suggestion but noted that chimpanzees hunt cooperatively
without using language. Modern humans are known to have
reached Australia by at least 40,000 years ago and were
probably in the general neighborhood of Flores at the same
time, so it is plausible that they could have been the
makers of the stone tools. "I think it's a big jump" to
assume the Floresians had language, Dr. Foley said.
Dr. Morwood said he has found no sign of modern humans in
Flores before 11,000 years ago so has no basis for
associating them with the tools in the Liang Bua cave. Dr.
G. Philip Rightmire, a paleoanthropologist at Binghamton
University in New York, said he was convinced that the
tools were made by the little Floresians.
"It's a wonderful demonstration of apparently 'archaic'
humans adapting to the special conditions on Flores," Dr.
Rightmire said. "I wouldn't have supposed that such
small-brained people descended directly from Homo erectus
would be capable of producing these artifacts, but the
evidence is pretty compelling."
The new findings add to the rapidly emerging picture of
Homo erectus, long overshadowed by the better-known
Neanderthals of Europe.
Like the Neanderthals, Homo erectus generally disappears
from the scene just before modern humans arrived in its
territory. The little Floresians not only survived long
into the modern period but, unlike most of the other
archaic human populations, managed to coexist with them.
They also demonstrate the adaptability of the human form
and how readily humans conformed to the same pressures for
pygmification that affected other island species.
Most of the extraordinary finds in paleontology have been
surprising because they were so old.
"What's exciting about this one is that it's so late,
telling us about the processes and patterns of evolution in
a way that's deeply informative," Dr. Foley said.