Hobbits Of The South Pacific

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

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The scientists also unearthed stone tools, including sophisticated points, blades, awls and tiny barbs that were probably attached to sticks to make spears. Although the evidence is circumstantial, Morwood and his team are convinced that the tools were made by H. floresiensis. Even though modern humans were living in the region at the same time, their bones don't appear in the layers with the tools. If the two species were contemporaries, of course, there is also the disturbing possibility that we killed and ate our smaller cousins--although there is no evidence to support that horrifying idea.

Besides some basic evolutionary questions, the presence of the Hobbit on Flores raises a practical one as well: How did her ancestors get there in the first place? Unlike elephants, which are surprisingly buoyant, they couldn't have swum the roughly 12 miles that separated Flores from the nearest land even when sea level was at its lowest. Rats and other small mammals could have floated over on flotsam, but if the first human settlers had hitched a ride on tree trunks or large mats of vegetation, you would expect other large mammals--pigs, deer, monkeys, tigers--to have done so as well.

Morwood theorizes that the Hobbit's ancestors must have built primitive rafts of bamboo; members of the team even constructed their own, à la Kon-Tiki, to prove it could be done. That would have been a technological feat far beyond anything H. erectus had ever been credited with, and some paleoanthropologists are skeptical. Not all, though. Says Chris Stringer, head of the Human Origins department at the London Natural History Museum: "The most likely explanation, as difficult as it is for me to accept, is that they used some kind of watercraft." Morwood goes a step further, suggesting that to achieve the kind of cooperation required to build rafts, H. floresiensis must have had language.

That's too speculative for most of his colleagues to accept at this point. But some of Morwood's other theories are being taken quite seriously. If the Hobbits evolved in isolation on Flores, there is every reason to believe that the same thing happened on other nearby islands. "I think we're going to have a plethora of new human species showing up," he says. Moreover, if the creatures survived all the way to 13,000 years ago, it's not at all impossible that they survived much longer--perhaps long enough to provide a factual basis for the Floresian folktales.

And if the Hobbits hung on until as recently as 500 years ago, it is conceivable, though admittedly very far-fetched, that pockets survive even today--if not on Flores, then on other remote Pacific islands. "The probability is that they're extinct," says Stringer. "But since this is such an astounding and surprising find, I think it shows how little we know about events in Southeast Asia. You really have to keep an open mind." --With reporting by Andrea Dorfman/ New York and Eugenia Levenson/London



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