Anthropologists uncover ancient jawbone that supports existence of Hobbit-like people





Scientists digging in a remote Indonesian cave have uncovered a jaw bone that they say adds more evidence that a tiny prehistoric Hobbit-like species once existed. The jaw is from the ninth individual believed to have lived as recently as 12,000 years ago. The bones are in a wet cave on the island of Flores in the eastern limb of the Indonesian archipelago, near Australia.

The research team which reported the original sensational finding nearly a year ago strongly believes that the skeletons belong to a separate species of early human that shared Earth with modern humans far more recently than anyone thought.

The bones have enchanted many anthropologists who have come to accept the interpretation of these diminutive skeletons marooned on Flores with dwarf elephants and other miniaturized animals, giving the discovery a kind of fairy tale quality.

But a vocal scientific minority insists the specimens are nothing more than the bones of modern humans that suffered from microencephaly, a broadly defined genetic disorder that results in small brain size. The latest discovery on Flores to be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature does not change their minds, they said, with one critic describing the latest artifacts as "pretty scrappy."

And, at least two groups of opponents have submitted their own studies to other leading scientific journals refuting the Flores work.

The result is a controversy unlike any other in the often-contentious study of human origins. Those caught in the middle say the debate is a real test for what we know about human evolution.

Daniel E. Lieberman of the Peabody Museum at Harvard said the specimens are so unusual that they deserve a more detailed analysis in order to adequately answer the critics.

"Many syndromes can cause microencephaly and dwarfism and they all need to be considered," said Lieberman, who wrote a commentary in Nature. "The findings are not only astonishing, but also exciting because of the questions they raise."

In the latest Nature study, the same team of Australian and Indonesian scientists working in trenches dug in Liang Bua cave found a variety of additional bones at various depths, suggesting the cave had been occupied for tens of thousands of years by several generations.

The most prominent specimen discovered in the latest batch is the lower jaw bone from a separate individual. Dating of charcoal nearby in the excavation layer suggests it is 15,000 years old.



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