Tag Archives: Homo floresiensis

The hobbits of Flores: An update

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit")

Homo floresiensis from Liang Bua Cave, Flores, Indonesia. (Credit: Wikipedia)

In October 2004 the world’s news media headlined the discovery of fossil remains of a tiny adult human on the Indonesian island of Flores, dated at around 18 ka. At only 1 m tall, with a brain cavity around a third the size of ours, yet having used stone tools and fire she was a sensational find. Someone so tiny and with such a small brain seemed highly unlikely to some palaeoanthropologists. Others claimed she was of a different species altogether. Homo floresiensis was also challenged as a new species and attributed to some congenital cause of small stature in a modern human – H. sapiens had first colonised Flores between 50 and 35 ka. But the subsequent discovery of remains of nine more individuals revealed skeletal details that were definitely un-human, with a suggestion of greater affinity to H. erectus. Her stature even suggested to a few anthropologists that she may have descended from migrant H. habilis, previously known only from 2 Ma ago in East Africa. The issue of relatedness was partly resolved by further dating of the cave strata that entombed the ‘hobbit’ which pushed her back to between 190 to 50 ka, beyond the earliest date of modern human colonisation. Further fragmentary fossil finds in more easily dated sediments on Flores showed the earliest known H. floresiensis lived around 700 ka ago. Stone tools and butchered prey remains on the island go back to 1 Ma, when the hominin trail goes cold.

English: Cave where the remainings of ' where ...

Liang Bua cave where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003. (credit: Wikipedia)

A plausible theory for these human’s ‘hobbit’-like size is an evolutionary process known as island dwarfism, akin to that which produced the tiny elephants (Stegodon) on which they preyed. Such dramatic size reduction may arise through the influence of stringently limited food resources on the evolution of descendants from a restricted founder population, genetically cut-off from larger, more widespread populations. It now appears that such dwarfism has also affected a modern human population living on Flores (Tucci, S and 14 others 2018. Evolutionary history and adaptation of a human pygmy population of Flores Island, Indonesia. Science,  v. 361, p. 511-516; doi: 10.1126/science.aar8486). A group of people of diminished stature live within shouting distance of the Liang Bua cave in which Homo floresiensis was first discovered. On average adults in the village are about 1.45 m tall. They certainly are not relict H. floresiensis, just significantly smaller than other Indonesian people living on Flores.

Serena Tucci and colleagues analysed the DNA of 32  adult pygmies from the village of Rampasasa. They show no sign of DNA from any other archaic human population than the Neanderthal and Denisovan traces that every living person outside of Africa carries – the pygmies are not descendants of H. floresiensis and are little different from other Indonesians and the rest of us. The analysis does show, however, that their ancestors carried a mixture of DNA from East Asia and New Guinea; perhaps a result of several waves of migration between 50 and 5 ka. They also carry significantly more DNA segments that are linked to short stature than do other East Asians. This suggests natural selection favored existing genes for shortness while the pygmies’ ancestors were on Flores; in other words they display an example of island dwarfism akin to that probably explaining the ‘hobbits’. Moreover, the people of Rampasasa show signs of an evolutionary adaptation to an almost exclusively meat and seafood diet, possibly arising after they migrated to Flores and had to depend on the available fauna but little in the way of plant foods.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Hobbit time

A few months after the diminutive hominin fossil Homo floresiensis, which because of its relatively large feet was quickly dubbed the ‘Hobbit’, turned out to be considerably older than previously thought it hit has the headlines again because its ancestors may have colonized the Indonesian island of Flores far earlier still. A pair of articles in the 9 June 2016 issue of Nature consider evidence from another site on the island where fluvial sediments offer more easily interpreted stratigraphy than the complex Liang Bua cave assemblage where the original skeletal remains were unearthed. The site in the So’a Basin became an important target for excavation following the discovery there in the 1950’s of stone artefacts, east of Wallace’s Line – a fundamental faunal and floral divide once thought to be due to the difficulty of crossing a deep, current-plagued channel in the Indonesian archipelago. The unexpected presence of artefacts drew palaeoanthropologists from far afield, but it was almost 50 years later before their exploration yielded hominin remains.

English: homo from flores

Homo floresiensis (credit: Wikipedia)

One of the papers reports sparse new finds of hominin material from the So’a Basin, a fragment of mandible and 6 isolated teeth thought to be from at least three individuals (van den Bergh, G.D. et al., 2016. Homo floresiensis-like fossils from the early Middle Pleistocene of Flores. Nature, v.  534, p. 245-248). The other covers newly discovered artefacts, the stratigraphic and palaeoecological setting, and radiometric dates of the finds (Brumm, A. and 22 others, 2016. Age and context of the oldest known hominin fossils from Flores. Nature, v.  534, p. 249-253). The jaw fragment shows signs of having once held a wisdom tooth, showing that it belonged to an adult. Yet although it resembles the dentition of the younger Liang Bua specimens, it seems more primitive and is even smaller. The other dental finds are most likely to be deciduous teeth of juveniles. Fission-track, uranium-series and 40Ar/39Ar dating indicates that the fossils entered the sediments about 700 ka ago. But tools and remains of prey animals in deeper sedimentary layers here and at other Flores sites indicate the presence of hominins back as far as about 1 Ma, before which there are no such signs.

So, at least a million years ago Flores was colonised by hominins. Either the original immigrants were uniquely small compared with other hominins of that vintage in Asia and Africa, or within 300 ka they had decreased in size through the evolutionary influence of limited resources on Flores and the process of island dwarfism. The second may also have been influenced by an initially small population of migrants or a later population ‘bottleneck’ that added a loss of genetic variability – a founder effect.   These two alternatives may point respectively to either the even earlier migration out of Africa and across most of Asia of perhaps H. habilis, or the dwarfing of a limited population of H. erectus who made their way there from their known occupation of Java. The authors painstaking analysis of the meagre remains suggest a closer dental resemblance to Asian Homo erectus than to earlier African hominins, so the second alternative seems more likely. However, even that scenario poses palaeoanthropology with a major problem; yet another evolutionary process that helps cryptify the links among our earlier relatives. (See also: Gomez-Robles, A., 2016. The dawn of Homo floresiensis. Nature, v.  534, p. 188-189.)

Homo floresiensis, aka the ‘Hobbit’, is somewhat older

In 2004 a newly discovered hominin fossil from the Indonesian island of Flores made headlines worldwide. Although an adult, it was tiny – about a metre tall, had a commensurately small brain (the size of a grapefruit), had made tools and hunted small elephants and giant rats. Dates from the cave floor sediments that had entombed it gave ages as young as 13 to 11 thousand years and as far back as 850 ka. So H. floresiensis was regarded as being the last human to share the Earth with us; that is, if it was a different species rather than a product of evolutionary shrinkage of anatomically modern humans stranded and isolated on the island for a very long time. Then there was talk among locals of the legendary Ebo Go-Go, with whom their ancestors had shared the island – they had arrived between 35 to 55 thousand years ago.

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit")

Homo floresiensis (the “Hobbit”) ( credit: Wikipedia)

Unsurprisingly, a major controversy raged in palaeoanthropology circles, between those who demanded either island dwarfism or congenital deformity of modern humans, and the other camp focused on many anatomical differences that pointed to a bona fide companion to later immigrants who perhaps survived into modern times. The ‘Hobbit’ became a cause celebre, but many of the original protagonists are now left with the proverbial egg on their faces. The cave sediments turn out to have a much more complex stratigraphy than previously thought, following further excavations led by the original discoverer Thomas Sutikna of the Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional in Jakarta Indonesia (Sutikna, T. and 19 others 2016. Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature, v. 532, p. 366-369.

English: Cave where the remainings of ' where ...

Liang Bua cave on Flores island, Indonesia, where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003. (credit: Wikipedia)

The delayed appearance of the revision is hardly surprising, given the lengthy political squabbles surrounding access to the site. And neither are the outcomes, for cave sediments are notoriously tricky because of their episodic reworking by cave floods and roof falls, together with the difficulty in finding materials suited to dating in tropical settings. The original charcoal used in radiocarbon dating and sand grains subject to the thermoluminescence method were in fact from a  unit that lies unconformably against the stratum that hosted the fossils. More sophisticated luminescence dating of the actual fossil-hosting sediments yield ages between 100 to 60 ka, tool-bearing units range from 190 to 50 ka. The origins of H. floresiensis are thus pushed back beyond the date of supposed colonisation by H. sapiens, and remain an open question.

Human evolution news

Since discovery of its fossilised remains in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores was discovered in 2004 the diminutive Homo floresienesis, dubbed the ‘hobbit’ by the media, has remained a popular news item each time controversies surrounding it have flared. To mark the tenth anniversary  of its publication of a paper describing the remains Nature has summarised the recollections of many of those involved in trying to understand the significance of H. floresiensis (Callaway, E. 2014. Tales of the hobbit. Nature, v. 514, p. 422-426). Two main schools of thought continue in dispute, one holding that it is anatomically so different from anatomically modern humans and earlier members of the genus Homo that it constitutes a new species, despite its youngest member dating back only 18 ka, the other that it is H. sapiens, its tiny size having resulted from some kind of genetic disorder, such as microcephaly or Down’s syndrome. There have been so many attempts to expunge the idea of such an odd fossil cohabiting an island with fully modern humans yet being a different and perhaps extremely archaic species that such an outlook itself seems somewhat pathological.

English: Homo floresiensis, replica Deutsch: H...

Replica of the Homo floresiensis skull from Liang Bua cave, Flores, Indonesia (credit: Wikipedia)

The evidence presented to force H. floresiensis into a deformed human mould has never been convincing, and the best way of combating that view is to document from a ‘non-combatant ‘standpoint the many ways in which its anatomy differs from ours and how it might have arisen; a job to which Chris Stringer of the Museum of Natural History in London is amply qualified (Stringer, S. 2014. Small remains still pose big problems. Nature, v. 514, p. 427-429). He, like the original discoverers, feels this is a case of evolution of small stature due to a limited population being isolated for a long time on a relatively small island, which is just what happened to elephants that colonised Flores to become the pigmy Stegodon that H. floresiensis seemingly hunted. These tiny Flores dwellers (adults were about 1 m tall) used fire and made tools, similar ones dating as far back as ~1 Ma. Stringer mentions the possibility of first human colonisation about that time by Asian H. erectus but also the view that if it happened once there may have been several waves of immigration to Flores. The unusual ‘hobbit’ anatomy is not restricted to tiny size and a small skull and brain cavity (400 cm3), but includes odd hips, wrist bones, shoulder joint and collar bone. In fact the remains bear as much or more resemblance to australopithecines like ‘Lucy’ (3.2 Ma) than to other members of our genus, even H. erectus that has been proposed as its possible ancestor. Could they be far-travelled descendants of the 1.8 Ma old H. georgicus from Dmanisi in Georgia? More fossils clearly need to be found, and Stringer raises the possibility of the search being widened to other islands east of Java, such as Sulawesi, the Philippines and Timor. He hints that in such a tectonically active region tsunamis may have led to animals and humans saving themselves and then being current dispersed on rafts of broken vegetation, rather like some survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami who ended up 150 miles from their homes by such a means.

Another story that is set to ‘run and run’ is that of ‘alien’ DNA in the human genome and productive relations between early out-of-Africa migrants with Neanderthals, Denisovans and perhaps yet a mysterious, earlier human species. The oldest (45 ka) anatomically modern human genome sequence so far charted is from a leg bone found by a mammoth-ivory prospector in Siberian permafrost (Fu, Q. and 27 others 2014. Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature, v. 514, p. 445-449). Like a great many living non-Africans this individual carried about 2 % Neanderthal DNA, but unlike living people the 45 ka genome has it in significantly longer segments. That allowed the authors to re-estimate the timing of the genetic flow from Neanderthals into the individual’s ancestors. Previous estimates from living DNA geve the possibility of that being between 37-86 ka, but this closer data suggests that it happened between 7 to 13 ka before the date of the fossil femur, i.e. narrowing it down to between 52 and 58 ka closer to the widely suggested time of African exodus around 60 ka (but see an Earth Pages item from September 2014)

More on human evolution here and here

Further support for Homo floresiensis (the ‘hobbit’)

English: Cave where the remainings of ' where ...

Liang Bua cave on Flores, Indonesia where fossils of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003 (credit: Wikipedia)

When they were first discovered in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores diminutive hominin remains sparked off a heated debate. Part of the reason for dispute was the age of the deposit in which they were found (18 to 850 ka), so young that it indicated possible cohabitation on the island with anatomically modern humans. On the one hand, the finders claimed that they represented a previously unknown hominin species. Other specialists considered that the tiny size (adults no taller than about a metre with brain capacity around that of australopithecines) indicated some congenital  dwarfism.

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit")

Homo floresiensis skull (credit: Wikipedia)

In the 9 years since the remains came to light, several anatomically features have been cited to support the view of a distinct hominin species: their lack of a chin and different arm and shoulder anatomy, which H. floresiensis shares with H. erectus and H. georgicus. The fossils are associated with simple stone tools and bones of a variety of prey animals that show cut marks and charring, suggesting that cooking was part of these hominins’ lifestyle; despite having small brains they were not unintelligent.

Substantial remains of nine or more individuals have been unearthed so that anatomical detail is almost complete. In 2007 details were published of three well-preserved wrist bones from the original find. They too were sufficiently different from modern and Neanderthal humans to warrant confirmation that H. floresiensis is indeed a distinct hominin species. Further work on wrist bones from other individuals has now more or less put the seal on this identity (Orr, C.M. et al. 2013. New wrist bones of Homo floresiensis from Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia). Journal of Human Evolution, v. 64, p. 109-129), the authors  concluding that ‘The pattern of morphology … supports H. floresiensis as a valid taxon and refutes the hypothesis that these specimens represent modern humans with some kind of pathology or growth disturbance’. They take matters further by suggesting that their lineage was established before divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals. As with the shoulder morphology that of their wrists would have somewhat hindered tool-making dexterity, but nonetheless they did make tools.