HOMO floresiensis
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Newest humans - Hobbit fossils

Ebu Gogo - Homo floresiensis


The remains of a tiny, new species of human,  Homo floresiensis that lived as recently as 13,000 to 17,000 years ago were discovered on an Indonesian island.  Hominids arrived at Flores as early as 880,000 years ago, leaving stone tools, but no associated fossil bone remains. The 18,000-year-old specimen, is known as Liang Bua 1 or LB1. Indonesian villagers living near the fossil find know the species as ebu gogo, "the grandmother who eats anything.  Accelerator mass spectrometry dating showed LB1's remains to be 18,000 years old. Fossil remains found  range from 94,000 to 12,000 years old. The oldest remains from the site are 78,000 and 94,000 years old. The most complete skeleton, a female, is about 1 meter tall, weighed about 25 kilograms and was around 30 years old at the time death. Their small brain was no bigger than a grapefruit.  Homo floresiensis (left) had a cranial capacity of approximately 380 cubic centimeters (small even by chimpanzee standards). The modern human average is 1,350 cubic centimeters.Homo floresiensis, 13,000 years ago

H. floresiensis skull alongside a human skull.
H. floresiensis survived well beyond the last Neanderthals, which are thought to have disappeared from Europe and western Asian about 28,000 years ago. Its adult body and brain proportions are comparable to those of the much older australopithecines, such as Lucy. H. floresiensis is not descended  from H. erectus. H. erectus and Homo sapiens appear to be more closely related to each other than either is to the hobbit. Homo erectus, could have arrived on Flores about one million years ago and evolved this tiny physique in the isolation provided by the island. H. sapiens arrived in eastern Asia by 35,000 years ago, so three human species may have co-existed in this region at one time. They survived alongside Homo sapiens for at least 30,000 years!

LB1's face is similar to members of the genus Homo, with thickened bone in the cranial vault and the shape of the brain case similar to Australopithecus. Their are proportionally slightly longer arms than a human's and eyebrow ridges are thicker. They have a sharply sloping forehead, and no chin. Stone tools were in use on Flores at 840,000 years ago, but from the cave with the LB1 fossil has no tools.


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It is suspected that the Flores people used fire in hearths for cooking and hunted the 1,000 kilogram stegodon, a primitive dwarf elephant found on the island. Their diet included fish, frogs, snakes, tortoises, birds, and rodents.

Hobbit Features

Homo floresiensis was a very small size compared to possible ancestors. Compared to the australopithecines the legs are short. The humerus, clavicle and scapula structure indicates less wide rotation ability at the shoulder. The wrist bones do not have the palmar expansion, so the hobbit may not have had the specialised form of precision grip found in modern humans.  Homo floresiens has features similar to australopithecines (for which both wrist and shoulder are known), Homo habilis (in which only the wrist is known) and Homo ergaster (in which only the shoulder is known). The bones in the Homo floresiensis wrist is indistinguishable from an African ape or early hominin-like wrist and nothing at all like that seen in modern humans and Neanderthals. Some bones are wedge-shaped, as in apes. The same bones in humans and Neanderthals are squared-off. This suggested that its species diverged from the human lineage up to two million years ago. Cladistic analysis suggests hobbits took one of two evolutionary paths from Africa to Flores. One began 1.66 million years ago, the other 1.9 million years ago so the 1m-tall creature came from a lineage that lived long before the common ancestor of people and Neanderthals.

H. floresiensis foot Fossil foot of H. floresiensis

The brain size is similar to an australopithecine and a chimpanzee. At 380 cm³ (23 in³), is at the lower range of chimpanzees or the ancient australopithecines. It facial features include a medium-sized brow ridge, a retreating forehead, a small external ear opening (like an australopithecine and unlike modern humans), protruding jaws, large cheekteeth, and a retreating mandibular symphysis ("chin") with internal buttressing. The mandible in Homo floresiensis is represented by two individuals, LB1 and LB6, so its form is not just an oddity in a single specimen.

In modern humans the symphysis - where the two halves of the lower jaw meet in the midline - is famously pulled forward at its lower margin to form a chin. All modern human mandibles, without exception as far as is known, have this structure, whether the actual chin is prominent and pointed or receding.

In early hominins (Australopithecus, Homo habilis) the symphysis recedes markedly, and there is no trace of a chin protrusion. In LB1 and LB6 we see no trace of the modern human structure. Instead we see massive internal buttressing like australopithecines or Homo habilis.

The hobbit brain is seems much too small to be a dwarf Homo erectus, and in general it seems far too primitive. One explanation is that it is a direct descendant of Homo habilis, or even a late australopithecine, which spread its range outside Africa even before the ancestors of Homo erectus did. There are similarities between hobbits and A. afarensis, the species represented by the 3.2-million-year-old Lucy skeleton from Ethiopia.

Tool use

There is evidence of the use of fire for cooking in Liang Bua cave, and evidence of cut marks on the Stegodon (elephant relative) bones associated with the finds. The  stone tools are of the fairly sophisticated Upper Paleolithic tradition typically associated with modern humans, who at 1310–1475 cm³ is nearly quadruple the brain volume of H. floresiensis (with body mass increased by a factor of 2.6). Cooperative hunting would be needed by this small human species to effectively kill local dwarf Stegodon . The same tools are found through the entire deposit (from 90,000 to 13,000 years ago) and, interestingly, they are not like any stone tools made by Homo erectus.

Extinction?

Local geology suggests that a volcanic eruption on Flores approximately 12,000 years was responsible for the extinction of H. floresiensis, along with other local fauna, including the dwarf elephant Stegodon. Geologic evidence suggests that a massive volcanic eruption 12,000 years ago brought about the extinction of the tiny humans and the dwarfed elephants.

Inhabitants of Flores have legends about the existence of little people on the island they call Ebu Gogo. Ebu Gogo beings are described as being about one metre tall, hairy and to communicate by "murmuring" to each other. The Ebu Gogo are said to have been small, hairy, language-poor cave dwellers on the scale of H. floresiensis. The Ebu Gogo may have been present at the time of the arrival of the first Portuguese during the 16th century. These strange creatures have been reported as recently as the late 19th century.

On the island of Sumatra, there are reports of a 1–1.5 m tall humanoid, the Orang Pendek. H. floresiensis might explain the Orang Pendak. There is still the possibility of finding this species alive!

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by Laurence Evans 1998 - 2008

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