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Ancient `hobbit' subject of lecture.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Peter Brown does not for a minute believe in hobbits or leprechauns, but he most certainly believes in the little people.

Brown, a paleoanthropologist at Australia's University of New Eng-land, believes in them because he's seen them, or at least a skeleton of one. He was part of a team that three years ago unearthed one of the most stunning finds in recent history, bones from a tiny, never-seen-before human relative named Homo floresiensis by the scientists and quickly dubbed "hobbit" by the media, for its seeming resemblance to the fantastical creatures in "The Lord of the Rings."

Brown will be at the University of Oregon on Wednesday to discuss the find and its implications for the human family tree.

Discovered on the remote island of Flores in Indonesia, Homo floresiensis is an archaeological puzzle. At a little more than 3 feet tall, it is the smallest hominid found since our ancestors came down from the trees and dates to as recently as 12,000 years ago.

Its long arms and short legs are reminiscent of the australopithecine, which lived 2 million years ago, but its skull and teeth were much more modern, something like those of Homo erectus, a close human ancestor. And its brain was as small as a chimp's, yet it seemingly made tools, used fire and hunted in groups, suggesting intelligence and possibly communication.

When Brown was first shown a rough sketch of the skeleton that a colleague had found in a cave on Flores, he guessed it was a child from a modern human or perhaps even a monkey. But a tooth brought back from the dig seemed to suggest something more like Homo erectus; the idea of an australopithecine never even crossed Brown's mind.

So he went to the cave and was stunned to find specimens that seemed to resemble both.

"I think within 10 or 20 seconds of looking at the lower jaw, I knew exactly that it can't have been a modern human and it had features in common with Homo erectus and australopithecines," he said in a phone interview from his Sydney home.

"It wasn't something I was expecting to find on that particular island in that particular place. Nothing like this had ever been found before."

It took a year after the discovery in 2003 for the find to be analyzed and the results published. When they were, in the journal Nature in 2004, it was the discovery of the year.

The paper blew the covers off the book of human origins. Some scientists scoff at the team's conclusions, saying the bones most likely came from a modern human with some form of dwarfism or a birth defect, microcephaly, that produces an abnormally small brain.

Skepticism remains, although further work uncovered more bones from at least seven individuals consistent with the original skeleton, which Brown and others believe strengthens the claim for a separate species. And examination of the skull showed the creature's brain, while small, had unusually robust development in areas associated with cognitive processes.

Also, bones and artifacts in the cave date back to 95,000 years ago. Brown called the notion of a large group of similarly diseased humans surviving in the Pleistocene rain forest for so long "bizarre."

"This is not an abnormal individual or a population of abnormal individuals," he said.

But they did live in a bizarre landscape. Homo floresiensis hunted stegodons, a kind of pygmy elephant, and also had to contend with a species of giant rat and an extra-large version of the Komodo dragon, animals that evolved to fit the island's environment.

At first, Brown and his colleagues thought a process known as island dwarfism, which favors smaller hominids better able to cope with the poor food supply in the rain forest, caused a population of Homo erectus to evolve into the tiny H. floresiensis.

While that's still one theory, Brown now leans toward the more striking idea that Flores man represents a direct link to the much more ancient australopithecines, a notion that raises all sorts of interesting speculation because australopithecine fossils have never been found outside of Africa.

"Now there's increasing evidence for a connection to something earlier than Homo erectus," Brown said. "We're talking about a side branch which became extinct, but the immediate ancestor of Homo floresiensis would in fact have been an australopithecine under that model rather than a member of our genus, Homo."

One thing Brown doesn't buy is all the talk about interaction between Flores man and modern humans and the idea that such contact produced the many cultural myths about "little people." Sure, modern humans and Homo floresiensis overlapped and the tiny humans actually survived longer than Neanderthals, but that doesn't mean they hung out with Homo sapiens.

The small population of Homo floresiensis was isolated in the rain forest interior, while modern humans most likely stuck to the coasts.

As for local stories of the Abu Gogo, a race of tiny cave dwellers on Flores, the tales more likely grew from sightings of the similar-sized macaque monkeys, Brown said.

"I'm not a great believer in leprechauns," he said.

Homo floresiensis apparently died out between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago due to a major volcanic eruption that also doomed most other large animals and a number of plant species on Flores, which is still one of the most volcanically active places on the planet.

But Southeast Asia has thousands of remote islands similar to Flores, and Brown said it's possible other hominids yet unknown found safe harbor among them and that other new species are yet to be found.

"I'll be surprised if there isn't," he said. "We keep finding these sorts of things in various parts of the planet, and the more we look the more we seem to be finding."


Topic: "A Revolution in Evolution: Discovery, Story and Implications of Homo floresiensis - The Hobbits"

When/where: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 180 Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, UO campus. Free.
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Title Annotation:Science & Technology; Paleoanthropologist Peter Brown will discuss finding the bones of a tiny hominid
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 6, 2006
Previous Article:BOOK NOTES.

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