Extinct 'Hobbit' population discovered in Palau

An extinct population of small-bodied humans has been found on the Palau group of islands in the Pacific Ocean, a University of the Witwatersrand researcher said on Tuesday.

Palaeoanthropologist professor Lee Berger discovered the fossils while vacationing in Palau in 2006.

“We were on a kayak excursion when a guide asked me if I wanted to see a cave with some old bones.

“When I saw a tiny face, part of a fossil skull, I instinctively knew that they were of major importance,” said Berger.

He and an international team of scientists led by South African researchers were then funded by the National Geographic Society to conduct further investigations into whether a so-called “Hobbit” species had really existed.

He said the fossils were from 1 400 to 3 000 years old and came from two burial caves in Palau’s Rock Islands.

They had some, but not all, of the features found in the controversial Homo floresiensis fossils discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2004.

The Homo floresiensis fossils, also known as the “Hobbit”, have been at the centre of a scientific debate on whether the tiny skeletal remains represent a new species of human, or whether their size is merely the result of some type of genetic disorder such as microcephaly.

“The Palauen fossils exhibit a surprising number of traits that were originally used to describe the ‘Hobbit’,” Berger said.

“This includes a small body size, relatively large teeth, small faces and reduced chins.”

He said the Palauen cave in which the original fossils were found was literally filled with individual skeletons, and when excavated, the sand itself was practically made up of ground human bone.

“In a 1m square by 50cm deep test pit, we recovered more than 1 200 fragments of human beings—it was remarkable.

“They [the humans] were as small as just over a metre. One foot bone is actually almost the same size as the same foot bone of the famous Little Foot skeleton in Sterkfontein, and that’s very small.”

Little Foot is an early human ancestor dating back to about 2,5-million years ago.

Berger said the brains of the Palauen humans were thought to be small, at the very bottom of or even below modern human variations.

However, they were not as small as the brains of the Hobbits.

Berger explained that at the time of the species’ existence, no large terrestrial animals were around as a food source, so it was likely that early Palauens had to survive on only near-shore marine resources, causing a great deal of dietary stress.

The second cave had revealed an equally large cache of bones, indicating to Berger that the islands might be full of surprises.

“Who knows what is out there? It just demonstrates the great need for more exploration,” he said.—Sapa


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