Homo Floresiensis, "New Species of Early Man"
New species of early Man
A fossil of a diminutive human nicknamed "the Hobbit" does indeed represent a previously unrecognised species of early Man, according to a new technique that suggests it was a cultured little fellow.
Sceptics had argued that the Hobbit, discovered in Indonesia and first announced last year, could have been an individual who suffered from microcephalya, a disorder that limits brain growth.
The fossils' discoverers had suggested that the Hobbit was either a pygmy form of a known species or a previously undiscovered species of early human.
Yesterday Nathan Jeffery of the University of Liverpool described a new way to study the imprint left by the brain on the inside of fossilised skulls.
His work adds fuel to a debate about how advanced the Hobbit's mental abilities might have been.
The cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, where scientists found the fossil, also contained remnants of stone tools, fire, and a pygmy elephant, suggesting but not proving that Homo floresiensis may have had surprisingly advanced cognitive abilities given its chimpanzee-sized brain.
The endocranial volume of the Hobbit is about 380cc to 417cc. "This is considerably smaller than expected for any Homo species, even one of such diminutive stature, and is only slightly bigger than that of living chimps (383cc).
"Unlike chimps, H. floresiensis was found alongside some very impressive looking stone tools. Most modern humans would struggle to fashion such elegant tools in a timely manner let alone some dwarf-like and presumably slow-witted hominid," he said, adding that either the stone tools belonged to some other larger-brained hominid or else our assumptions about brain size were "utterly wrong".
The latter seems to be the case according to his study of X-ray scans of fossils, living apes and modern humans. Dr Jeffery has revealed a simple yet effective measure of the endocranial cavity which gives a proportion of frontal and cerebellar parts of the brain and appears to reflect the rudimentary cultural advances between species.
"The proportion for H. floresiensis (168 per cent) falls within the range for Homo erectus (165 -171 per cent) and is approximately 20 percentage points greater than that for the chimps," he said. "As expected the mean proportion for modern humans is much higher than the rest at 205 per cent."
Because Homo erectus is the first hominid to demonstrate clearly what could be called culture, by the use of stone tools, living in camps and with a social organisation that was similar to modern hunter-gatherers, "these findings show that the cognitive and cultural capabilities of H. floresiensis are not entirely inconsistent with the stone tools discovered on Flores".
"Although the brain of Homo floresiensis is very small, it is very similar in its proportions to that of Homo erectus and hence not inconsistent with the stone tool assemblages also found on Flores."
Australian and Indonesian archaeologists began to unearth the Hobbit in 2003.
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