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The little Floresians: the discovery of a new species of archaic humans in Indonesia offers a whole new take on human evolution and adaptation.

There once lived a race of people whose adults stood just three-and-a-half feet high. Despite their stature--and and chimpanzee-sizebrains--they were mighty hunters. They made complex tools with which they speared rats, clubbed giant lizards, and hunted pygmy elephants

OVERLAPPING LIVES

Strangest of all, this is no fable. Skeletons of these miniature people (including a nearly intact adult female scientists nicknamed the Hobbit, who they estimate to be 18,000 years old) have been excavated from a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, 370 miles east of Bali. They have been assigned to a new human species, Homo floresiensis.

The Floresians lived on the island until at least 13,000 years ago and possibly much later than that. But they were not a pygmy form of modern Homo sapiens. Scientists say they descended from Homo erectus, a species that died out about 250,000 years ago, just before the emergence of modern humans.

Their discovery means that archaic humans survived--and even coexisted with H. sapiens--far longer than was previously thought. (Until now, scientists believed that the Neanderthals of Europe, who disappeared 33,000 years ago, were the last hominids to coexist with modern humans.)

The Floresians also demonstrate the adaptability of the human form. Before modern times, Flores was inhabited only by a select group of animals that managed to reach the island. They became subject to evolutionary forces that propelled some toward giantism and reduced the size of others.

GIANTS & DWARFS

The lizards, for example, became giant-size and are now called Komodo dragons. The elephants evolved to a dwarf form the size of an ox. Presumably, the H. erectus that had arrived on the island some 840,000 years ago became subject to the same environmental pressures toward dwarfism.

Among today's inhabitants of Flores, legend has it that there were little people who lived in caves until the arrival of Dutch traders in the 16th century.

Now, with the discovery of the little Floresians, scientists may be inclined to take these stories a bit more seriously.

Nicholas Wade covers science for The Times.
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Title Annotation:Science
Author:Wade, Nicholas
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Nov 29, 2004
Words:345
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