The Littlest Human [Preview]

A spectacular find in Indonesia reveals that a strikingly different hominid shared the earth with our kind in the not so distant past

They call it ebu gogo, the grandmother who eats anything. Scientists best guess was that macaque monkeys inspired the ebu gogo lore. But in October 2004 an alluring alternative came to light. A team of Australian and Indonesian researchers excavating a cave on Flores unveiled the remains of a lilliputian human--one that stood barely a meter tall--whose kind lived as recently as 12,000 years ago.

The announcement electrified the paleoanthropology community. Homo sapiens was supposed to have had the planet to itself for the past 25 millennia, free from the company of other humans following the apparent demise of the Neandertals in Europe and Homo erectus in Asia. Furthermore, hominids this tiny were known only from fossils of australopithecines (Lucy and the like) that lived nearly three million years ago--long before the emergence of H. sapiens. No one would have predicted that our own species had a contemporary as small and primitive-looking as the little Floresian. Neither would anyone have guessed that a creature with a skull the size of a grapefruit might have possessed cognitive capabilities comparable to those of anatomically modern humans.

Isle of Intrigue

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Flores has yielded surprises. In 1998 archaeologists led by Michael J. Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, reported having discovered crude stone artifacts some 840,000 years old in the Soa Basin of central Flores. Although no human remains turned up with the tools, the implication was that H. erectus, the only hominid known to have lived in Southeast Asia during that time, had crossed the deep waters separating Flores from Java. To the team, the find showed H. erectus to be a seafarer, which was startling because elsewhere H. erectus had left behind little material culture to suggest that it was anywhere near capable of making watercraft. Indeed, the earliest accepted date for boat-building was 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, when modern humans colonized Australia. (The other early fauna on Flores probably got there by swimming or accidentally drifting over on flotsam.) Humans are not strong enough swimmers to have managed that voyage, but skeptics say they may have drifted across on natural rafts.

Hoping to document subsequent chapters of human occupation of the island, Morwood and Radien P. Soejono of the Indonesian Center for Archaeology in Jakarta turned their attention to a large limestone cave called Liang Bua located in western Flores. Indonesian archaeologists had been excavating the cave intermittently since the 1970s, depending on funding availability, but workers had penetrated only the uppermost deposits. Morwood and Soejono set their sights on reaching bedrock and began digging in July 2001. Before long, their teams efforts turned up abundant stone tools and bones of a pygmy version of an extinct elephant relative known as Stegodon. But it was not until nearly the end of the third season of fieldwork that diagnostic hominid material in the form of an isolated tooth surfaced. Morwood brought a cast of the tooth back to Armidale to show to his department colleague Peter Brown. It was clear that while the premolar was broadly humanlike, it wasnt from a modern human, Brown recollects. Seven days later Morwood received word that the Indonesians had recovered a skeleton. The Australians boarded the next plane to Jakarta.

Peculiar though the premolar was, nothing could have prepared them for the skeleton, which apart from the missing arms was largely complete. The pelvis anatomy revealed that the individual was bipedal and probably a female, and the tooth eruption and wear indicated that it was an adult. Yet it was only as tall as a modern three-year-old, and its brain was as small as the smallest australopithecine brain known. There were other primitive traits as well, including the broad pelvis and the long neck of the femur. In other respects, however, the specimen looked familiar. Its small teeth and narrow nose, the overall shape of the braincase and the thickness of the cranial bones all evoked Homo.

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