Little lady of Flores forces rethink of human evolution
The find has excited researchers with its implications - if unexpected branches of humanity are still being found today, and lived so recently, then who knows what else might be out there? The species' diminutive stature indicates that humans are subject to the same evolutionary forces that made other mammals shrink to dwarf size when in genetic isolation and under ecological pressure, such as on an island with limited resources.
Flores, God and Cryptozoology
The discovery that Homo floresiensis survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures such as yetis are founded on grains of truth.
In the light of the Flores skeleton, a recent initiative4 to scour central Sumatra for 'orang pendek' can be viewed in a more serious light. This small, hairy, manlike creature has hitherto been known only from Malay folklore, a debatable strand of hair and a footprint. Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold.
The Flores find
For the archaeologists who unearthed and studied the Flores skeleton, the discovery is a potentially career-defining event. So how did they greet the find, and has it changed their ideas about human evolution? News@nature.com asked Peter Brown, who led the analysis, and Mike Morwood, who directed the dig, for their reflections.
A stranger from Flores
The conventional view of early human evolution is that the species Homo erectus was our first relative to spread out of Africa, some 2 million years ago. The spread that our cousin achieved is indicated by a 1.8-million-year-old, primitive form of H. erectus found at Dmanisi in Georgia, and by finds at slightly younger sites in China and the Indonesian island of Java. It was not thought that H. erectus travelled any farther towards Australia than this, because although early humans could have walked to Java from Southeast Asia at times of low sea level, the islands east of Java, always separated from it by deep water, seemed beyond their reach.
Actual papers here and here.
From the first one, the summary section describing the overall morphology and its apparent relationship to other hominins: When considered as a whole, the cranial and postcranial skeleton of LB1 combines a mosaic of primitive, unique and derived features not recorded for any other hominin. Although LB1 has the small endocranial volume and stature evident in early australopithecines, it does not have the great postcanine tooth size, deep and prognathic facial skeleton, and masticatory adaptations common to members of this genus2, 47. Instead, the facial and dental proportions, postcranial anatomy consistent with human-like obligate bipedalism48, and a masticatory apparatus most similar in relative size and function to modern humans48 all support assignment to the genus Homo—as does the inferred phylogenetic history, which includes endemic dwarfing of H. erectus. For these reasons, we argue that LB1 is best placed in this genus and have named it accordingly.
So it essentially presents a mixture of traits from the earlier australopithecines with craniofacial features more like later Homo, but with a brain volume at the lowest end of the earliest australopithecine range.