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We may not be the only humans on Earth.

Byline: By JOHN VON RADOWITZ Western Mail

A 3ft tall 'hobbit' discovered on a remote Indonesian island has raised the extraordinary possibility that our human species might not be alone on Earth.

The female creature has been identified as a completely new member of the human race.

But, although she lived 18,000 years ago, scientists believe her relatives survived for thousands more years on the island of Flores.

And experts have not ruled out the possibility of her descendants, or other unknown human species, still hiding in the impenetrable forests and cave systems of South-East Asia.

Mythical tales abound in the region of a race of little people that dwell on the islands of Indonesia.

Dutch explorers who colonised Flores 100 years ago were told colourful stories of a human-like creature local inhabitants called 'ebu gogo'.

The tales described how they could be heard 'murmuring' to one another, and how, parrot-fashion, they repeated back words spoken to them.

Dr Henry Gee, senior editor of scientific journal Nature, said scientists who made the discovery were now having to think again about these stories' source.

'Until they found this creature they would have dismissed them as tales of hobbits and leprechauns, but no longer,' he told a news conference last night.

The new human, named Homo floresiensis, is a dwarf-sized descendent of another primitive species that left Africa two million years ago.

A female's grapefruit-sized skull and partial skeleton was unearthed at a cave site called Liang Bua.

The Australian team, led by Dr Peter Brown from the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, has now found at least seven other specimens at the same site.

Whether or not there is any truth in the legends, the creature would have lived at the same time as our own branch of the human family, Homo sapiens.

It used to be thought human evolution followed a linear path, as one species gave way to another.

But modern humans and Nean- derthals are now known to have co-existed in Europe 30,000 years ago. Homo floresiensis is only the second example of a different human species from our own living alongside our ancestors - but much more recently.

The find has been hailed as one of the most important human origin discoveries of the last 100 years.

Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at London's Natural History Museum, said, 'This has really re-written the text books. To have this creature present less than 20,000 years ago is astonishing.

'In terms of the bigger questions of human evolution as a whole, and how complex it was and how much we still have to learn, I cannot underestimate its importance. At first, some of my colleagues were in a state of complete disbelief that such a thing could have existed.'

Together with the bones, the researchers uncovered a number of delicate stone tools thought to have been used by floresiensis.

Professor Stringer said the discovery raised a plethora of questions, such as where the creatures came from, whether or not they spoke a language, and how they might have been regarded by modern humans.

It is thought that they evolved from Homo erectus, who must have crossed the sea to reach the island.

But this is a mystery in itself because, although erectus was known to have made fire and used tools, there has never been any record of boat-building.

Another riddle is the tiny brain size of floresiensis, which at 380 millilitres is smaller than a chimpanzee's.

Scientists had thought there was a brain size threshold for human intelligence which was much larger. Yet the new species clearly retained its intelligence despite shrinking to such a small size.

Scientists are now looking to see if DNA samples can be extracted from the remains, which should shed new light on the creatures.

The Australian team expects more dramatic human finds to be uncovered on other islands in South-East Asia.
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 28, 2004
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