Tag Archives: Liang Bua

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.

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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