Scientists have discovered the remains of a new species of human, a dwarf-sized descendant of Homo erectus, which lived on the exotic Indonesian island of Flores until at least as recently as 18,000 years ago.
The age of the fossil was dated using new radiocarbon techniques developed by University of St Andrews scientist Professor Michael Bird.
The dating crucially revealed that the species lived up until at least 18,000 years ago, meaning that it overlapped significantly in time with modern Homo sapiens. Other dating techniques have shown that the species was present on the island from at least 74,000 years ago.
Modern humans are thought to have arrived in Southeast Asia 40- 50,000 years ago and arrived on the island of Flores some time thereafter. They arrived as their ancestor, Homo erectus, must have done, 800,000 years earlier, either by boat or by swimming, since there has never been a land bridge between the island and the rest of south east Asia.
The fossil – a partial skeleton – uncovered in a cave in Flores belonged to a female individual who, while fully adult, was barely a metre tall and had a brain the size of a grapefruit. Archaeologists believe that the remains could represent the descendants of a population of Homo erectus that became isolated on Flores some time during the past few hundred thousand years.
Given the fossil’s distinctive anatomy, the remains (consisting of a skull, pelvis and leg bones) have been assigned as a new species.
Professor Bird worked with an international team of researchers from Australia, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Canada and Belfast on the project. The findings and the new name of the species – Homo floresiensis – is revealed in the latest issue of the international scientific journal ‘Nature’.
Along with colleague Dr Chris Turney of Australia’s University of Wollongong and Professor Keith Fifield of the Australian National University, Professor Bird developed a new technique for radiocarbon dating of charcoal (called ABOX-SC). The new method is more reliable than previous techniques and can yield reliable ages on ancient deposits of charcoal. Using this and other techniques, the team were able to determine the age of the remains, found six metres beneath layers of rubble and clay.
Surrounding the remains of the new species were fossils of small animals such as a fish, frog, snake, tortoise and bird and larger mammals including a monkey, deer, pig and porcupine. Archaeologists also found stone artefacts, including a massive chopper, which they believe were made by the dwarf species.
Professor Bird, of the School of Geography and Geosciences at St Andrews, said: “This is a very important discovery as it adds an entirely new branch to our family tree, and the close working relationship between the archaeologists and geoscientists working on this project has meant that we can be very certain of the age of these fossils.”
The remains of the new species were found by a team led by Peter Brown, of Australia’s University of New England, in September 2003 at a cave site in Flores called Liang Bua. The new species – a form of dwarf human – mirrors previous finds on the island; Flores was for a long time home to a range of archaic creatures extinct elsewhere, often morphed into dwarf or giant forms as a result of their isolation. These included a dwarf form of the primitive elephant Stegodon, as well as full-sized Komodo dragons and an even larger species of giant lizard.
Although marooned on its island home, this new species of human lived at a time when relic populations of the full-sized Homo erectus may still have been living in nearby Java, and when the entire region had been colonised by Homo sapiens. How the tiny, small-brained species survived for tens of millennia alongside Homo sapiens remains unclear, as there is currently no evidence for the nature of their interaction.
‘Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia’ appears in Nature volume 430 (28th October, 2004).
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