for National Geographic News
Scientists have found skeletons of a hobbit-like species of human that grew no larger than a three-year-old modern child (See pictures). The tiny humans, who had skulls about the size of grapefruits, lived with pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons on a remote island in Indonesia 18,000 years ago.
Australian and Indonesian researchers discovered bones of the miniature humans in a cave on Flores, an island east of Bali and midway between Asia and Australia.
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Scientists have determined that the first skeleton they found belongs to a species of human completely new to science. Named Homo floresiensis, after the island on which it was found, the tiny human has also been dubbed by dig workers as the "hobbit," after the tiny creatures from the Lord of the Rings books.
The original skeleton, a female, stood at just 1 meter (3.3 feet) tall, weighed about 25 kilograms (55 pounds), and was around 30 years old at the time of her death 18,000 years ago.
The skeleton was found in the same sediment deposits on Flores that have also been found to contain stone tools and the bones of dwarf elephants, giant rodents, and Komodo dragons, lizards that can grow to 10 feet (3 meters) and that still live today.
Homo floresienses has been described as one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology in half a centuryand the most extreme human ever discovered.
The species inhabited Flores as recently as 13,000 years ago, which means it would have lived at the same time as modern humans, scientists say.
"To find that as recently as perhaps 13,000 years ago, there was another upright, bipedalalthough small-brainedcreature walking the planet at the same time as modern humans is as exciting as it was unexpected," said Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist at the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia.
Brown is a co-author of the study describing the findings, which appears in the October 28 issue of the science journal Nature. The National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration has sponsored research related to the discovery. The find will be covered in greater detail in a documentary airing early next year on the National Geographic Channel.
"It is totally unexpected," said Chris Stringer, director of the Human Origins program at the Natural History Museum in London. "To have early humans on the remote island of Flores is surprising enough. That some are only about a meter tall with a chimp-size brain is even more remarkable. That they were still there less than 20,000 years ago, and [that] modern humans must have met them, is astonishing."
The researchers estimate that the tiny people lived on Flores from about 95,000 years ago until at least 13,000 years ago. The scientists base their theory on charred bones and stone tools found on the island. The blades, perforators, points, and other cutting and chopping utensils were apparently used to hunt big game.
In an accompanying Nature commentary, Marta Mirazón Lahr and Robert Foley, both with the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, England, describe Homo floresiensis as changing our understanding of late human evolutionary geography, biology, and culture.
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