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Ancient oddballs in Indonesia.

To date, Homo sapiens (aka modern humans) are the only people known to have ever resided in the Americas. Any fossil evidence pointing to a new, unknown class of Western Hemisphere hominids would be a huge surprise--probably requiring scientists to reconsider human evolutionary history and the peopling of the planet.

But such surprises do occur, if rarely. In 2003, for example, researchers uncovered a partial skeleton of a half-size Homo species on the Indonesian island of Flores (SAT: 10/30/04, p. 275). The team reported that the skeleton belonged to a female adult who probably stood 3 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed as little as 35 pounds. Because her brain size would have been similar to that of a chimpanzee, and because of other anatomical differences, the ancient lady was pegged as a member of a new species, not a pygmy version of H. sapiens.

Most puzzling for anthropologists, the recovered fossils dated from 17,000 to 95,000 years ago, meaning the new species--dubbed H. floresiensis--lived alongside H. sapiens. H. floresiensis also appeared to make sophisticated stone tools.

Backlash came swiftly. The new hobbitlike hominid didn't fit within the existing framework of human evolution. Soon after the Flores fossils were announced, another team argued that the partial skeleton came instead from a modern human with a genetic growth disorder. A condition called microcephaly, for example, could have made the head smaller than usual. The argument has shifted back and forth, back and forth since. A report published last August found that the proportions of the hobbit skull fit within the range of mierocephalic H. sapiens (SN Online: 8/8/11).

Because getting DNA from the Flores bones is extremely difficult, there's no end to the debate in sight. No doubt anyone who makes claims about ancient giants or hobbits elsewhere on Earth would face a similar fight.

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Title Annotation:UPDATE
Author:Quill, Elizabeth
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Apr 7, 2012
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