Ancient hobbits rewrite history

The accumulation of small heritable changes within populations over time.

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Ancient hobbits rewrite history

#1  Postby Kiwi » Feb 26, 2010 10:09 pm

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/ar ... 724&pnum=0

It remains one of the greatest human fossil discoveries of all time.

The bones of a race of tiny primitive people, who used stone tools to hunt pony-sized elephants and battle huge Komodo dragons, were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004. The team of researchers had been working in a vast limestone cavern, called Liang Bua, in one of the island's remotest areas, when one scientist ran his trowel against a piece of bone. Carefully, the group began scraping away the brown clay in which pieces of a tiny skull, and a little lower jaw, were embedded. This was not any old skull, they quickly realised. Although small, it had special characteristics. In particular, it had adult teeth.

"This was no child, but a tiny adult; in fact, one of the smallest adult hominids ever found in the fossil record," says Mike Morwood, of Australia's University of Wollongong and a leader of the original Flores expedition team. The pieces of bone were carefully wrapped in newspaper, packed in cardboard boxes and then cradled on the laps of scientists on their journey, by ferry and plane, back to Jakarta. Then the pieces of skull, as well as bones from other skeletons found in Liang Bua, were put together. The end result caused consternation. These remains came from a species that turned out to be only 3 feet tall and had the brain the size of an orange. Yet it used quite sophisticated stone tools. And that was a real puzzle. How on earth could such individuals have made complex implements and survived for aeons on this remote part of the Malay archipelago?

Some simply dismissed the bones as the remains of deformed modern humans with diseases that had caused them to shrink: to them, they were just pathological oddities. Most researchers disagreed, however. The hobbits were the descendants of a race of far larger, ancient humans who had thrived around a million years ago. These people, known as Homo erectus, had become stranded on the island and then had shrunk in an evolutionary response to the island's limited resources.

However, new evidence suggests the little folk of Flores may be even stranger in origin. According to a growing number of scientists, Homo floresiensis is probably a direct descendant of some of the first apemen to evolve on the African savannah three million years ago. These primitive hominids somehow travelled half a world from their probable birthplace in the Rift Valley to make their homes among the orangutans, giant turtles and rare birds of Indonesia before eventually reaching Flores. It sounds improbable but the basic physical similarity between the two species is striking.

Consider Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old member of Australopithecus afarensis. She had a very small brain, primitive wrists, feet and teeth and was only 1m tall, but was still declared "the grandmother of humanity" after her discovery in Ethiopia in 1974. Crucially, analysis of Lucy's skeleton shows it has great similarities with the bones of H. floresiensis, although her species died out millions of years ago while the hobbits hung on in Flores until about 17,000 years ago. This latter figure is staggeringly close in terms of recent human evolution and indicates that long after the Neanderthals, our closest evolutionary relatives, had disappeared from the face of the Earth around 35,000 years ago, these tiny, distant relatives of Homo sapiens were still living on remote Flores.

The crucial point about this interpretation is that it explains why the Flores people had such minuscule proportions. They didn't shrink but were small from the start - because they came from a very ancient lineage of little apemen. They acquired no diseased deformities, nor did they evolve a smaller stature over time. They were, in essence, an anthropological relic and Flores was an evolutionary time capsule. In research that provides further support for this idea, scientists have recently dated some stone tools on Flores as being around 1.1 million years old, far older than had been previously supposed.

"The possibility that a very primitive member of the genus Homo left Africa two million years ago, and that a descendant population persisted until only several thousand years ago, is one of the more provocative hypotheses to have emerged in anthropology during the past few years," David Strait of the University of Albany told Scientific American recently. This view is backed by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London. "We are still grappling with what this discovery has done for our thinking and conventional scenarios."

In addition, Mike Morwood says he has now uncovered stone tools on nearby Sulawesi. These could be almost two million years old, he believes, which suggests the whole region was populated by very ancient humans for a startlingly long part of human prehistory. However, it is the hobbits' similarity to ancient African apemen that provides the most compelling evidence for their ancient origins.

In the Journal of Human Evolution, a team led by Debbie Argue of the Australian National University reported that analysis of H. floresiensis shows they most closely resemble apelike human ancestors that first appeared around 2.3 million years ago in Africa. In other words, their stock may be not quite as old as Lucy's but probably comes from a hominid, known as Homo habilis, that appeared on the evolutionary scene not long after Lucy's species disappeared.

Consider those hobbit feet. The skeleton unearthed on Flores had a foot that was 20cm in length. This produces a ratio of 70 per cent when compared with the length of the hobbit's thigh bone. By contrast, men and women today have foot-to-thigh bone ratios of 55 per cent. The little folk of Flores had short legs and long, flapper feet, very similar to those of African apemen, even though limbs like these would have made their long march from Africa to Flores a painful business.

Similarly, the hands of H. floresiensis were more like apes than those of evolved humans, their wrists possessing trapezoid bones that would have made the delicate art of stone-tool making difficult. Nevertheless, this little apeman, with poor physique and a chimp-sized brain now appears to have left Africa, travelled thousands of miles and somehow colonised part, if not all, of South-East Asia two million years ago. So how did it arrive on the island in the first place? It is a puzzle, although Stringer believes the region's intense tectonic activity is significant.

"After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, people were found far out at sea clinging to rafts of vegetation. Things like that could have happened regularly in the past and people could have been swept out to sea and washed ashore on Flores. Alternatively, there could have been short-lived connections between now separate islands."

Thus, ancient African apemen travelled half the world, made homes across Indonesia and, in one case, were washed out to sea to end up colonising a remote island that was already populated with pygmy elephants and giant Komodo dragons, which are still found on the island. Then there is the report that dates the stone tools on Flores as being 1.1 million years old. "Until we found these dates, the longest period of island isolation that we knew about occurred on Tasmania where the aboriginal people were cut off from mainland Australia 11,000 years ago," says Morwood.

A crucial aspect to this remarkable story is the region's geography, Morwood believes. The ocean currents and the remoteness of Flores make the island difficult to get to, so once a species does get there, it will remain well protected on it, he argues. "Flores seems to protect species that are long past their use-by dates. There were those pygmy elephants, and the Komodo dragon. And now we have Homo floresiensis." That is putting it mildly. Had not the original team uncovered hobbit remains, the story of humanity's African exodus would have been considered a fairly simple affair.

According to this version of events, Homo erectus evolved from apemen predecessors in Africa and then headed off around the Old World more than a million years ago, armed with a great physique and a modest intellect. These allowed it to settle across Africa, Asia and Europe. This diaspora was then followed by a second wave of humans - our own species, Homo sapiens - which emerged from Africa 100,000 years ago and took over the planet, replacing all pockets of its predecessors it encountered.

Now a far more complex picture is emerging. Ancient apemen appear to have done the trick almost a million years earlier. One of the major tenets of human evolution is in need of revision.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE PRIMITIVE PEOPLE

The fate of the primitive people on Flores is unclear. The species disappears abruptly from the archaeological record 17,000 years ago. But why? They had apparently survived quite happily on the island for more than a million years. So what did for them in the end? There are two competing answers. The first suggests that the species, after all the good fortune that had helped it endure the vicissitudes of life in the Malay Archipelago, ran out of luck.

"There is a thick layer of ash in the Liang Bua cave above the most recent hobbit remains," says Stringer.

"We now know this was caused by a major volcanic eruption which occurred about 17,000 years ago. So it may be that they were just unlucky with the local geology." According to this vision, the little folk of Flores were wiped out by choking plumes of volcanic ash or died of starvation on an island denuded of vegetation.

Yet neither Stringer nor Morwood is convinced that was what happened, despite the tight link between dates of eruptions on the island and the disappearance of the species from the fossil record. Instead, they suspect a very different agent: modern humans. When Homo sapiens entered Europe 40,000 years ago, they would have encountered the continent's original inhabitants, the Neanderthals. Within a few millennia, the Neanderthals were extinct. Homo sapiens left Africa about 100,000 years ago and by the time hobbits became extinct on Flores, modern humans were all over South-East Asia, competing for the same resources.

There could only be one winner. "I cannot see Homo floresiensis keeping modern humans off the island. There must have been encounters between them and us. It is wonderful to speculate what might have happened when they met up, but I suspect that those moderns used up the resources that the hobbit needed to survive."
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Re: Ancient hobbits rewrite history

#2  Postby The_Piper » Feb 28, 2010 12:16 pm

I'm glad I'm not reading too much about the microcephaly counter-claims anymore. That's kept my hopes down for a long time. Reading this article is as exciting as the day they announced the discovery.
I imagine they bagged a few humans before going out heh heh.
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Re: Ancient hobbits rewrite history

#3  Postby Kiwi » Mar 01, 2010 12:52 am

It seemed to me from the outset that although the proposal that the original skeleton was that of a microcephalic or some other "abnormal" sapiens form was necessary to put, it was disposed of by:

1. The odds of the first specimen just happening to be abnormal are very very small
2. It was clearly of an organism who had survived to adulthood
3. The skull analysis showed several non modern human features

Now several other examples have been found.

One thing I would question here though is the use of this term "apemen". It is not helpful in letting people know that humans are apes. I don't want people getting the idea that there is a suggestion that we evolved from "hobbits".

Similarly, the hands of H. floresiensis were more like apes than those of evolved humans,


"they came from a very ancient lineage of little apemen."


Better to simply say "ancestral sapiens" and "ancestral floresiensis"
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