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Homo floresiensis gains credibility

New Flores finds back 'island-dwarfing' theory

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Researchers on the Indonesian island of Flores have uncovered more evidence that another species of hominid still lived on Earth as recently as 12,000 years ago.

In 2003, scientists working on the site found the skull of a small hominid female. Labelled LB1, the skull was that of an adult, but too small to be that of a Homo sapiens sapiens. This prompted speculation that it in fact belonged to another, hitherto undiscovered, species of hominid.

The species was officially called Homo floresiensis, but because of its size, it quickly became known as the Hobbit. (This apparently enraged Professor Peter Brown, of New England University, New South Wales who led the research, to the extent that he would hang up his phone at the very mention of the word.)

The new finds include an arm bone belonging to LB1, as well as other limbs and jawbone fragments from other individuals. The team also discovered cutting tools, and animal bones that show signs of having been butchered. Charred bones and scored stones also indicate that the inhabitants of the site at least knew how to husband a fire, if not light one for themselves.

The researchers suggest the little people evolved from Homo erectus which was known to live on the island 800,000 years ago. Their size could be the result of so-called island dwarfing, a well documented phenomenon whereby a species isolated on an island shrinks or grows dramatically over time. Mammals converge on something about the size of a rabbit, apparently the most energy-efficient size for a mammal to be.

Crucially, the bones found now span a gap of at least 3,000 years, the researchers say. This makes it more difficult for the hominids' size to be attributed to disease in a modern human.

However, some researchers suggested that it was nothing more exotic than a human with an abnormally small brain, perhaps suffering from a condition called microencephaly. They argue that, proportionally, the brain is too small to be that of a scaled-down Homo erectus. ®

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