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Little people cause big surprise

Scientists uncover the skeleton of a small-bodied relative of human beings.

There are little people, and then there are little people.

Between 38,000 and 18,000 years ago, there lived an especially tiny group of people-like beings. Two teams of researchers from Australia have discovered part of a skeleton in a cave on an island called Flores in eastern Indonesia. The bones appear to belong to a species of human relatives that have never been discovered before.

The newly discovered <span class=normal>Homo floresiensis</span> skull (left) comes up short next to a <span class=normal>Homo sapiens</span> skull (right).

The newly discovered Homo floresiensis skull (left) comes up short next to a Homo sapiens skull (right).

Peter Brown

The find included most of a skull, part of a pelvis, and two leg bones. The individual was only about 3 feet, 3 inches tall, weighed about 35 pounds, and was probably female. At first, the researchers thought the bones belonged to a child because they were so small.

On closer inspection, though, the scientists had to conclude that the bones came from an adult. Grind marks on the teeth were the biggest clue. The teeth were too worn to belong to a child. To figure out when the woman lived, one of the teams analyzed thousands of stone tools and animal bones that came out of the cave.

The new species has been named Homo floresiensis. It appears to be closely related to a larger species that lived at the time, called Homo erectus. Some researchers now think that H. erectus evolved into the smaller H. floresiensis on the island of Flores, where food was limited. But the little species eventually died out, while H. erectus continued to evolve into modern people, Homo sapiens.

H. floresiensis wasn't the only miniature species on its island. There were also small elephants and Komodo dragons. In fact, the scientists found sharp sticks among dwarf elephant bones in the same cave where the humanlike bones turned up. So, our little evolutionary cousins may have dined on little elephants.—E. Sohn

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2004. Evolutionary shrinkage: Stone Age Homo find offers small surprise. Science News 166(Oct. 30):275. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20041030/fob1.asp .

McDonagh, Sorcha. 2003. The puzzle of ancient mariners. Science News for Kids (Oct. 22). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20031022/Note3.asp .

You can learn more about the discovery of a tiny species of human at www.nature.com/news/specials/flores/index.html (News@nature.com).

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