PNGAA Library

Homo floresiensis and New Ireland? Debbie Argue

In 2003 a tiny skeleton was discovered during an archaeological excavation in Liang Bua cave, on the island of Flores in Indonesia by Professor Mike Morwood and Dr Tony Djubiantono and a team of Indonesian and Australian archeologists. It was revealed to an unsuspecting world in October 2004: the bones of a new kind of human that, because it was so small, was nick-named "the hobbit". The excavation had aimed to find insights into the origins of the first Australians. No-one could have imagined that it would throw the scientific world into a frenzy of excitement and controversy.

The most spectacular find was at a depth of six meters. It was an 18,000-year-old skeleton of a person just over one meter tall. The skeleton was first named LB1, in reference to the cave in which it was found. The remains included the skull, leg bones, parts of the pelvis, hands, feet, and some other fragments. Judging by the pelvis, LB1 was probably female. Although it is not known how she died, archaeological evidence shows that she had not been deliberately buried but, rather, after death, had sunk into mud in a shallow pool of water where she was slowly covered by silt.

LB1 was not alone. There were 30 other human bones from a number of individuals found throughout the 13-meter excavation. These remains were in stratigraphic levels that have been dated to between approximately 10.2 and 100 thousand years before present. They were all from small individuals. At these levels of the archaeological site there were no bones from individuals with the stature of modern humans.

When the bones of the diminutive human were first discovered, no one was sure what species they belonged to. It was necessary to compare them with bones of Homo sapiens and archaic hominin species. Peter Brown and his co-workers compared the Liang Bua remains with those of Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, Homo georgicus, Homo sapiens, and Australopithecus africanus. They concluded that LB1 showed a mix of archaic and modern characteristics. In this, LB1 was unlike any other species of human. It was declared to be a new species of Homo and given the name Homo floresiensis.

LB1 and her kind were tiny—only one meter—tall but LB1’s jaw had a full complement of adult teeth, which suggested that, relative to modern humans, she was the equivalent of about a 30-year-old. As well, Homo floresiensis had relatively long arms and long feet. Their wrists and shoulder joints were quite unlike those of Homo sapiens. The wrists were more like those of African apes and the hands could not open as expansively as ours. They lacked a chin and had a short forehead that sloped backwards. A mound of bone framed the upper and side regions of the orbits. In all these ways, many researchers who examined the bones found at Liang Bua cave depicted Homo floresiensis as strikingly distinct from modern humans.

Though they were small and, in many features, unlike modern humans, Homo floresiensis walked upright. The opening where the spine enters the skull—the foramen magnum—is positioned in the same place as seen in Homo sapiens. If Homo floresiensis had walked on all fours the foramen magnum would have been positioned towards the back of the skull. It is unlikely, however, that this diminutive human walked in the way that we do. Her feet are 70 percent the length of her shins; in Homo sapiens the ratio is 55 percent. And LB1’s feet are not arched. Bill Jungers and his colleagues of Stony Brook University concluded that when she walked she had to bend her knees more than modern humans do and would never have a won a 100 meter dash, let alone a marathon. And, as she walked, her long arms—shorter relative to leg length than in chimpanzees but, perhaps, proportionately similar to those of very early hominins that lived in Africa two and a half million years ago—lacked the rotational capacity seen in modern humans.

So we have a seemingly archaic member of our genus that lived very recently. Where did it fit, then, on our family tree? In 2009, with colleagues, to assess the possible relationships of this new species I analyzed and compared its characters with those of other Homo species, including Homo sapiens. The analysis showed that Homo floresiensis probably branched off our family tree at a very early stage of in the evolution of the genus Homo. But, remarkably, the bone evidence reveals that it lived as recently as 13,000 years ago: 1 to 2 million years after the disappearance of similar hominins from the African continent. Working on the bone evidence only, the Flores Island discoveries are likely to represent a remnant population of a very early hominin on this remote Indonesian island. There are, however, much more recent village stories of actual sightings of small ape like hominoid creatures on Flores. Descriptions of the physical characteristics of these tally well, but not perfectly, with what we know of H. floresiensis.

So why am I asking for information about skeletal remains on New Ireland in particular, when H. floresiensis is known from an archaeological excavation in only one cave on one island in Indonesia? Well, about a year ago I had heard of some rather odd stories of ape-like creatures swimming in the ocean off the northern shores of New Ireland. I assumed these reports to be of mis-identified seals, or dugongs, or similar. Nevertheless the images stayed in the back of my mind. When an anthropologist colleague mentioned that societies he was studying in New Ireland had a belief about little human-like creatures in the forests of their region, I did some research and found that descriptions of these included a number of characteristics that reminded me of H. floresiensis just as did the reports of sightings of the hominoid forms on Flores. Further, the anthropologist had expressed, tentatively, his impression that these reports might represent real people, rather than a mythological image (a more conventional anthropological view). I started to wonder if there had been something similar to H. floresiensis in them thar New Ireland hills (and oceans), or if I was in la-la land. Talking to my kiap friend Tony Beard about all this, he suggested I ask for any information from kiaps,  teachers, planters or others who spent time in New Ireland about (non-H. sapiens) skeletal remains people might know of, or have seen, during their period on New Ireland, so here I am, asking just that.

Contact details: Dr Debbie Argue, Research Fellow, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, College of Arts and Social Sciences, A. D. Hope Building, Australian National University, ACT 0200. Phone:  +61 (0)2 6125 7043;  +61 (0) 431 938 517

Sculpture of Homo floresiensis. [Created by
Dr Carol Lentfer. Image courtesy of the University
of New England, Armidale, Australia.]