Sunday, July 26, 2009

Library Unit One: Cultural Anthropology

“The World of the Little People”
Morwood, Sutikna and Roberts
National Geographic, April, 2005, 207:4 p3

On the Indonesian Island of Flores, Morwood et al set out to find more evidence of whoever had left tools that were more than 800, 000 years old, in a cave. This is not very different than what a lot of archeologists do – nothing particularly exceptional about this dig, except that the island of Flores was separated from the mainland of Asia, by about fifteen miles of ocean in the lowest of seas of that period. This doesn't seem like a very long distance to modern humans who have traversed the oceans of our planet earth for thousands of years now. But the notion that there might have been protohumans this far from the Asian mainland, even ten thousand years ago, flies in the face of everything we thought we knew before.

What they eventually found, in late 2003, was an even bigger surprise than they were expecting. Because rather than finding fossils of Homo erectus, who existed on the Asian mainland, around the time that the tools found by priest and amateur archeologist, Theodor Verhoven in the 1950's and 60's were made – they found the fossils of what was later named Homo floresiensis. First thought to be the fossil remains of a child, it was soon realized that Hominids weren't immune to natural selection. Assumed to be the ancestors of Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis fell prey to the same thing that island populations of many species undergo – they shrank.

But while their brains had shrunk with the rest of their body, they were certainly intelligent. Found amongst the remains of their living spaces, was evidence of fire, spears and the bones of stegodonts – some with clear signs that they had been hunted by these spears. What makes that so remarkable, is that the stegodonts of Flores, were the dwarfed cousins of their ancestral line from the mainland – at only 800lbs on average, these early cousins of modern elephants were still quite a match for a hominid species whose adults were about the size of an average preschool child. Presumably, H. floresiensis didn't need to kill very many of these stegodons, to fill their small bellies for a good while.

But most breathtaking of all, is the short time ago, that the latest remains found date from. There is strong evidence to indicate that Homus florensiensis was alive on Flores, a mere thirteen thousand years ago, with the oldest remains dating from ninety-five thousand years ago. Keeping in mind that the first tools discovered by Verhoven, were about 850,000 years old. It would seem apparent, that hominid life flourished on Flores, for hundreds of thousands of years, without modern humans stepping foot on this island, until about four thousand years ago. While the modern human race was spreading it's tendrils of population around the globe, Homus florensiensis was flourishing still, on Flores.

This fits well with discussions about evolution and homids, really making for a very exciting read for someone who has a strong interest in primate and hominid evolution. Being especially fond of clearing up the common misconceptions that many people have, as to the nature of evolution and especially human evolution, it is very useful to have examples such as this to draw on. Showing that rather than being a drive towards a particular pinnacle of achievement – a ladder up to who and what we are now, evolution is about adaptation and mutations that are not always functional and can sometimes be harmful in the long run.

The other thing that is so very exciting about this, is the discovery of very similar remains at Dmanisi in western Asia, more than six thousand miles and separated by roughly 1.8 million years, from Homus florensiensis. This leads us to more questions than answers and is evidence that there are probably more isolated hominid populations, just waiting to be discovered. And it leads to some very interesting questions about how two populations, separated by nearly two million years and thousands of miles, could be so very similar.

Millions of years after our early hominid ancestors took to walking upright, it has become an exciting time for discovering more and more interesting things about these, our ancient ancestors and other protohuman species that diverged at various point along the way, but who didn't survive all those millenia.

Exciting times indeed...

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