28 October 2004

Homo floresiensis

A miniature human species (thought to be a version of Homo erectus) has been discovered in Indonesia. The bones of this species have now been identified and possibly some hair, raising the possibility that scientists will be able to conduct DNA tests. The previously unknown human cousins barely a metre tall are thought to have survived until at least 13,000 years ago on the island of Flores. Homo floresiensis along with the island's elephants underwent a dwarfing process as a result of living on an island with limited resources (a well-documented phenomenon). Since modern human beings also descended from Homo erectus, remains of this new species may open the way for a genetic analysis of what our ancestors looked like a million years ago. (All the bones discovered so far of Homo erectus have been fossilised and therefore lack retrievable DNA.)

Some have speculated, on the basis of Flores myths, that Homo floresiensis may have survived longer--perhaps even into the modern period. This makes me wonder--Are stories of elves and so on in Britain based on some early memory of similar Homo erectus cousins living in Europe? I'm reminded of the movie Quest for Fire (1982), an amazingly realistic movie that portrays early man as he first discovered how to use fire. (The cavemen in the movie, even have their own primative language--based on early Indo-European, that is left untranslated!) When I first saw the movie, I remember thinking that the existence of multiple species of human being seemed to disagree with what we know of evolution, but it now looks like the movie's creators may have had it right. Incidently, I would highly recommend this film to those who haven't seen it.

Homo floresiensis, in spite of a miniature brain, was able to hunt, use fire and tools, and could probably travel at least short sea distances by bamboo raft.

Pharyngula and Scrutiny Hooligans have nice posts on the story.

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