Hobbits Of The South Pacific

Why the discovery of a 3-ft.-tall dragon slayer is rewriting human history

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The team had dug about 20 ft. down into the cave floor by September of last year when they came upon the tiny skull, and with it a nearly complete skeleton. The body was only about the size of a modern 3-year-old. "At first we were sure we'd found a child," says Morwood. On closer examination, though, the extent of wear on the teeth, evidence that the third molars had come in and the maturity of the limb bones made it clear that they were dealing with a fully grown adult. The shape of the pelvis showed that the skeleton was female, and several dating techniques indicated that it lived as recently as 18,000 years ago. Ultimately the team found fragments of six more individuals, the oldest from 95,000 years ago and the youngest from a mere 13,000 years ago.

From the start, says Morwood, "it was pretty obvious that this was not a modern human. It had a big brow and a massive nutcracker jaw," some of the telltale characteristics of H. erectus. But, he says, "it's very unlike the Homo erectus you get in Java." In fact, he believes the Hobbit most closely resembles specimens found in the Republic of Georgia that date back 1.7 million years. "It's obvious," Morwood says, "that human evolution has been much more complex than we'd realized."

It's even more obvious when you consider the Hobbit's diminutive size. The creature clearly wasn't an ape. It resembled the famous Lucy in stature and brain size, but the shape of the skull is very different; besides, Lucy is more than 3 million years older. The tiny brain also rules out the theory that this was a type of Pygmy, midget or dwarf, whose brains are all comparable in scale to those of full-size adults. But evolution does provide an explanation, known to biologists as the Island Rule: when isolated on small islands in the absence of big predators, large mammals tend to evolve toward smaller sizes. That's because they don't need to fight off attackers and because smaller individuals can get by better on limited resources. (Paradoxically, small animals on islands tend to grow larger, and Flores was populated with giant rats and lizards, including Komodo dragons.)

The Island Rule is almost certainly the reason Stegodon dwindled to the size of a water buffalo on Flores. But while examples of such shrinkage had been found in elephants, hippos and deer, it was unheard of in higher primates. "It shows that hominids are following the same evolutionary and ecological rules as other mammals," says paleontologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley. "Wallace and Darwin would have been delighted."

Despite their minuscule brains, the Hobbit and her kin were evidently smart enough to use fire, make tools and hunt, challenging existing notions of the relationship of brain size to intelligence. The scientists found bones of Stegodon, Komodo dragons and an assortment of rodents and other animals in the Liang Bua sediments, some of them charred by what may have been cooking fires.

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