A small reason to reconsider our ideas of humanity

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the remote caves of an Indonesian island, archaeologists have made a momentous discovery. What the Indonesian-Australian excavation team found on the island of Flores was the ancient skeleton of a female who was only one metre tall. This small skeleton is nothing less than proof of the existence of a previously unknown human species.

In the remote caves of an Indonesian island, archaeologists have made a momentous discovery. What the Indonesian-Australian excavation team found on the island of Flores was the ancient skeleton of a female who was only one metre tall. She was not a child - analysis of her bones shows she was approximately 30 years old when she died. Nor was she a dwarf - inspection reveals that the creature was perfectly proportioned. This small skeleton is nothing less than proof of the existence of a previously unknown human species.

Physiologically, these creatures were recognisably human. They walked upright and had flat faces. Although their brains were smaller than those of chimpanzees, they displayed an intelligence that marked them out as human. They used fire and fashioned tools for hunting. They may even have had language.

The most immediately striking aspect of these creatures is their size. Upon discovering them, the excavation team was soon referring to them as Hobbits, after JRR Tolkien's mythical halflings. There is clearly something about a race of small humans that appeals to our romantic imagination. But their size confirms something potentially even more significant - namely that humans are subject to Darwinian natural selection.

This is not, of course, the first discovery of a different type of human life. More than a century ago, Eugene Dubois found the fossils of Homo erectus. We know a little too about our close cousins, the Neanderthals who died out some 30,000 years ago. But the discovery of "Homo floresiensis" is especially important because of when these creatures lived.

We have been conditioned to think that our great leap forward some 40,000 years ago led to Homo sapiens' dominance and spelled the end for all other forms of human life. The existence of Homo floresiensis only 18,000 years ago casts doubt on this. Far from having always been a "single species", we have shared the planet until relatively recently with other humans who were radically different from ourselves. This discovery challenges many preconceptions about our origins, but perhaps its most fundamental challenge is to our very idea of what it means to be human.

Comments