for National Geographic News
A new study of ancient bones concludes that Palau's early inhabitants were simply small humans—not hobbit-like or dwarfs as suggested by earlier research.
The new findings may add to the continuing debate over remains found several years ago on the island of Flores, Indonesia, about 1,500 miles (2,300 kilometers) away. Scientists disagree about whether the tiny Flores "Hobbit" is its own species or a diseased human.
For the new study, scientists analyzed a nearly complete Palauan skeleton, several skulls, and bone fragments found at a burial site called Chelechol ra Orrak, on a small limestone island in the western Pacific island-nation.
The data suggest "that early Palauans were of normal size and that their physical characteristics are well within the variation seen in modern human populations," said lead author Scott Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University.
The study was published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.
The scientists say their research directly challenges some of the main findings of a study published earlier this year by Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
(Berger and colleagues were funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)
Fitzpatrick's team measured ancient Palau individuals at more than 4.5 feet (1.5 meters) tall, whereas the earlier team described individuals as smaller—only 3 to 4 feet in height (94 to 120 centimeters)—based on less complete remains from two separate burial caves called Ucheliungs and Omedokel.
Berger's earlier study (see video) also said the bones showed traits that are unusual or archaic in the human lineage—including deep jaws, no chins, large teeth, and small eye sockets—and might indicate insular dwarfism, an evolutionary process that may occur when isolated, island-bound species shrink in size due to limited dietary resources.
Fitzpatrick countered that such traits were within normal human variation and that there is no reason to believe insular dwarfism occurred on Palau.
There is "plenty of evidence for people living a healthy lifestyle," he said. "They had a virtual cornucopia of food at their disposal.
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