Minggu, 27 Desember 2009

Who Were the Hobbits' Ancestors?

In 2004 scientists unearthed a partial skeleton and other bones on the island of Flores in Indonesia. The scientists postulated that the skeleton belonged to an extinct species of primitive humans that had descended from Homo erectus ancestors. They named the new species Homo floresiensis, but the press dubbed them the hobbits because of their diminutive size.

Almost immediately the new find created a controversy. If Homo floresiensis descended from the much larger Homo erectus, how did they come to be so small, and in particular, how did their brains become smaller, too? Some scientists postulated that the skeleton was just a diseased modern human; others argued that the new species had undergone a phenomenon known as “island dwarfing”.

Analysis of the morphological features of Homo floresiensis has led to a new theory, summarized recently by Kate Wong in Scientific American – that Homo floresiensis descended not from Homo erectus, but from older (and smaller) ancestors, such as Homo habilis. That would explain LB1’s small size and diminutive brain, but it raises more questions than it answers. For example, if Homo floresiensis diverged from other known human lines nearly two million years ago, why haven’t other skeletons of this species been found? Did Homo floresiensis emigrate from Africa even before Homo erectus did? Where did they go before arriving in Indonesia?

It’ll be interesting to see how our thinking about Homo floresiensis evolves as new information comes in.

Reference: Wong, Kate. Rethinking the Hobbits of Indonesia. Scientific American, Nov. 2009, pp. 66-73.

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