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Flores' 'hobbits' on endangered list

Pinheaded pygmy

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Researchers are claiming fossils found on the Indonesian island of Flores, which caused a sensation when they were described as a new human species, are actually just pygmies.

At the time, the international team examining the discoveries said an unusually small fossilised skull from one individual showed the island was home to a distinct form of Homo sapiens which could have evolved there from our mutual forerunner Homo erectus.

Doubts have been raised since, however, though the original team has reasserted their claims in journals. They said a population may have survived until as recently as 12,000 years ago.

In particular, many were surprised at how a species reputed to have such a small brain could have been responsible for stone tools associated with the fossils.

Now, a group of experts from universities and museums worldwide have called the interpretation into question. The new analysis, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says the skeleton of the small-skulled individual has many abnormalities beyond its small cranium. Its small head was probably a case of microcephaly, a developmental condition often inherited, they assert.

Species can often evolve unique traits, or into new species in small geographically isolated populations. However, the team doubt that Flores, on the Malay archipelago, is isolated enough for there to have been only one influx of hominids in 800,000 years. They point out that fossils indicate there have been two elephant migrations to Flores in that time.

There are too many skeletal similarities with Homo sapiens for the Flores communitiy to have evolved separately from Homo erectus, say the team. Original comparisons with European skeletons were misleading, they reckon, and current pygmy populations near the Liang Bua cave are closer to the fossils.

The authors conclude: "Our reexamination of the original skeletal material shows that there is no adequate morphological or metric evidence for a new hominin species on Flores." ®

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