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Bones prove the existence of 'hobbits'

The bones of at least nine more "hobbits" - a miniature species of human discovered two years ago - have been unearthed by scientists excavating the floor of a cave on a remote Indonesian island.

The discovery of the remains confirms that the miniature people, who grew to about 3 feet, were a truly ancient species and not merely pygmies or modern humans with diseased skulls.

A team of scientists from Australia and Indonesia said the latest remains include a lower jawbone of a second individual as well as the arms of the first individual whose partial skeleton was unearthed in 2003.

The scientists have also found evidence that the species, which they have called Homo floresiensis after the island of Flores where the find was made, used fire and hunted a dwarf species of elephant called stegadon.

Dating of the sedimentary layers that encased the latest bones suggest the H floresiensis was living in the cave as recently as 12,000 years ago, long after the demise of all other human species apart from modern man, Homo sapiens.

The scientists excavated a range of bones from the miniature people, the oldest dating to about 74,000 years ago, suggesting that the creatures had lived in and around the cave for at least 50,000 years.

The same team, led by Michael Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, found the original skull and skeleton of the species, which they nicknamed "the hobbit" after the diminutive characters in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

The skull was about the size of a chimpanzee's, and housed a brain not much bigger than a small grapefruit. Other scientists were amazed that a human-like creature could survive with such a small brain.

Some researchers suggested that the Australian team had got their dating wrong, or had mistaken the fossils for remains of modern humans with some form of aberrant dwarfism.

However, writing in the journal Nature, the scientists dismiss suggestions that the bones are of a modern dwarf with a growth-hormone deficiency or a person with microcephaly, when the braincase does not grow to its full size.

"Abnormal growth seems an unlikely explanation, as growth hormone-related dwarfism and microcephaly in modern humans result in normal limb and pelvic proportions," they say.

The arms, legs and pelvis of the hobbit are in proportion to the size of its skull but they share a greater similarity to fossils of ancient African hominids than to later humans, said Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London.

"There are enough fossils showing distinctive features to rule out the possibility these are unusual or aberrant modern humans," Professor Stringer said.