Aussie researchers shed light on human evolution

Australian and international researchers have shed light on human evolution, potentially proving once and for all the “hobbit” was not a sick human.

An international team of scientists, led by the University of Wollongong found a lower right jaw fragment and six milk teeth from at least one adult and two children on the Indonesian island of Flores, and dated to be at least 700,000 years old.

Published in the scientific journal Nature on Thursday, the researchers argue the remains are descended from Homo erectus, suggesting an evolutionary reversal where human bodies, including brains, shrunk.

“This find has important implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution in the region and quashes once and for all any doubters that believe Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human (Homo sapiens),” lead researcher, University of Wollongong archaeologist Dr Gert van den Bergh said in a statement.

“It is conceivable that the tiny Homo floresiensis evolved its miniature body proportions during the initial 300,000 years on Flores, and is thus a dwarfed side lineage that ultimately derives from Homo erectus.

“It is also possible that this lineage pre-dates the first hominin arrival on Flores, implying speciation occurred on a stepping-stone island between Asia and Flores, such as Sulawesi.”

The scientists believe the early “hobbit” – a dwarf-like ancient relative of modern man, standing at just one meter tall – was marooned on the island that has only a simple ecosystem, thus having such a big brain was not needed.

Van den Bergh said because the fossils found at the Mata Menge site in Central Flores are much older than the previous “hobbit” find at Liang Boa, it helps quell the turmoil in the scientific community about the origins of Homo floresiensis.

“Now these new finds show that 700,000 years ago the ancestors of Homo floresiensis were already as small as the hobbit itself and secondly it provides a link between Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis,” Van den Bergh said.

Homo floresiensis was first discovered in 2004 around the time of the Lord of the Rings release, causing turmoil in the scientific community due to its mixture of primitive and advanced characteristics.

Ever since, the scientific community have been debating whether the “hobbit” is a descendent of Homo erectus, or from an earlier and tinier ancestor, Homo habilis.

The only way to confirm and fully evaluate the find is to now recover additional, more complete hominin skeletal remains from the Mata Menge deposit, or from older fossil-bearing strata, Van den Berg said. (Xinhua)