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Old 06-30-2006, 06:10 AM   #1
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Debate rages over `Hobbit Man' find

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Tiny Human Fossil A Big Mystery

Debate rages over `Hobbit Man' find

Jun. 24, 2006. 02:38 PM
_JAY INGRAM_
(http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/Con...d=977459474799)

AP PHOTO An aritist's rendering of Homo floresiensis is seen in this
image released Wednesday Oct. 27, 2004.

The day the "Hobbit Man" fossils were announced nearly two years ago, you
just knew they were going to be controversial. A tiny, unexpected human
relative who lived on an island near Java, was as small-brained as some of our
million-year-old ancestors, yet died out only about 18,000 years ago?
Well, now, as paleoanthropologists like to say, the coprolites have really
hit the fan. New studies of both the bones and tools of Homo floresiensis, or
Flores Man as it's called, have established deep divisions among the
scientists studying this creature. Even though the case for this being a new-found
relative of ours might seem to have been strengthened by the discovery of more
remains (pieces of up to nine individuals have now been found), it's the
meaning of those bones that is at issue.
The original skull and bones belonged to one diminutive individual. So
diminutive, in fact, that it provoked doubt. It's not that you can't have a
species in the human family that stands only a metre high and has a brain the size
of a grapefruit  such was the case millions of years ago. But this one lived
only a few thousand years ago, and so seemed anomalous.
At the time of discovery, some scientists raised the possibility that this
was actually a modern human with the genetic anomaly called microcephaly, an
abnormally small head. In other words, it might just be a compromised Homo
sapiens.
Now, that nagging possibility has been given new life in the form of a
letter to the journal Science by paleontologist Robert Martin at the Field Museum
in Chicago.
One theory is that Flores Man could have descended from a much larger
ancestor of ours, Homo erectus, shrinking over time as a result of living on Flores
Island. This is a well-known evolutionary phenomenon: large, island-dwelling
animals do lose bulk over time. (Elephants on Mediterranean islands ended up
weighing only 100 kilograms, 1 per cent of what they weighed before they
made it to the islands!) However, Martin is saying that the scale of Homo
floresiensis is all wrong.
In general, the brains of island-dwelling animals shrink much less rapidly
than their bodies. But Flores Man doesn't follow that rule. Martin has
calculated that for Flores Man to have a brain that's less than half the volume of
its presumed ancestor, Homo erectus, its body should only be 16 kilograms at
most (at worst, a few grams!). But estimates from the bones are that it could
have topped out at 30 kilos.
Martin's arguments have not gone unopposed. Dean Falk of Florida State
University led a team that examined the skull months ago and concluded, by
comparing it to a true microcephalic skull, that the two were dramatically different
and that Flores Man was not a diseased modern person.
She is sticking by that conclusion (even though Martin claims that the
comparison skull Falk used was not a typical microcephalic), and argues that
besides, she never claimed that Flores Man was the result of island shrinkage in
the first place. If he weren't, then Martin's calculations are beside the
point.
But the size and shape of the brain alone isn't the whole story. Susan
Larson of Stony Brook University in New York state has been looking at the arm
bones of Flores Man and has shown that when their arms hung by their sides, they
would have been turned inward much more than ours. This would have presented
a problem for working with the hands in front of the body, but for the fact
that the shoulder blade is twisted to compensate. They would have been
slightly hunched over as a result, but they could use their hands as we do.
And that anatomical piece connects to the most recent find. A team,
including some of the original discoverers of Flores Man, argues that their studies
of a variety of stone tools found on the island show that those attributed
specifically to Flores Man are just the most recent of a long line of tool
manufacture extending back several hundred thousand years. All the tools show
signs of having been made in the same way.
So, where are we? The tools and the arm bones suggest Flores Man is the real
thing. A modern microcephalic human wouldn't have weirdly twisted arms and
wouldn't be making stone tools based on 100,000-year-old techniques. But there
is still controversy about all these things.
And when all that is sorted out, there's still the mystery of where this
intriguing individual came from. We seem to be a long way from an agreement on
that.

____________________________________
Jay Ingram hosts Daily Planet on the Discovery Channel.
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Old 06-30-2006, 01:45 PM   #2
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