Local folktales on the Indonesian island of Flores, some 350 miles west of Bali, tell of a race of shy little people--South Seas leprechauns who inhabited the limestone caves that dot the island, accepting gourds full of food that the Floresians would set out for them. It wasn't until Dutch traders arrived in the 1500s, according to the legends, that the diminutive race finally disappeared.
Western scientists have long dismissed these stories as pure fancy, but now they are having second thoughts. In a report that rocked the world of paleoanthropology last week, a team of Australian and Indonesian scientists announced in Nature that they had discovered that a tribe of tiny humans, only about 3 ft. tall, did indeed live in the caves of Flores. Digging into the sediments on the floor of a cave called Liang Bua, the team found bones from seven individuals, including the nearly intact skeleton of an adult female they nicknamed the Hobbit. And while there's no proof that the little people survived later than about 13,000 years ago, it's not beyond the realm of possibility.
What makes the discovery truly shocking is that the beings were not, like the Pygmies of equatorial Africa, just a short variety of modern Homo sapiens. Dubbed Homo floresiensis, they represent an entirely new twig on the human family tree. Until now, scientists believed that Neanderthals, who died out some 30,000 years ago, were the only human species that coexisted for any length of time with people like us. The chapter of biology textbooks that describes our family tree will have to be rewritten.
Unlike Neanderthals, moreover, H. floresiensis wasn't a close evolutionary relative. Its discoverers are convinced that it evolved from Homo erectus, a primitive branch of humanity whose line was thought to have been entirely supplanted by modern humans about 250,000 years ago. And while the general trend in human evolution over the past 7 million years or so has been toward larger bodies and larger brains, H. floresiensis went the other way: not only was its body small but, again unlike Pygmy or midget H. sapiens, its brain was only about the size of a grapefruit--smaller than that of a chimpanzee. "To think," says Nature senior editor Henry Gee, "that these creatures were evolving on their island while there were perfectly modern humans all around the place--it's astonishing."
Uncovering a new species was the last thing the scientists expected when they began excavating in Liang Bua. They were on the trail of H. erectus, which arose in Africa but had spread all the way to Southeast Asia by 1.8 million years ago (the celebrated Java Man was the first to be discovered). Previous excavations in central Flores had already uncovered primitive stone tools, dating to about 800,000 years ago, mixed in with fossils of an extinct species of dwarf elephant known as Stegodon.
Reasoning that caves would be the best places in which to find undisturbed fossils, team leaders Michael Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, and R.P. Soejono from the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta decided to dig in Liang Bua, in the western part of the island. Limited excavations there had revealed evidence of human habitation.