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Little People of Flores

  • Posted 04.19.05
  • NOVA scienceNOW

In 2003 paleoanthropologists made a discovery on the Indonesian island of Flores that shook up the world of early human studies like no other in recent years. Inside a cave, under a thick blanket of sediments, they unearthed fossil bones of a three-foot-tall human. The fossil appeared for all the world not to have been that of a diseased modern human or Homo sapiens, but rather an entirely new species, which its discoverers named Homo floresiensis. The debate over just what this so-called hobbit and its kind were has only just begun.

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Transcript

LITTLE PEOPLE OF FLORES

PBS Airdate: April 1, 2005

ROBERT KRULWICH: You're not going to believe this, and I wouldn't blame you, 'cause if I told you this story that..."once upon a time, on a little island, somewhere way off in the sea, there lived a race of teeny people not known to science. They lived with elephants the size of ponies. They hunted dragons that spat poisonous saliva laced with botulism and anthrax..."

You'd say, "Come on."

But here's the thing. An international team of paleoanthropologists think that this story may be true, and tonight we're going to show you evidence that suggests that these little people may have existed on our planet for tens of thousands years. And, even more intriguing, there's the outside chance, they may still be around.

Midway between Asia and Australia, here in Indonesia, lies the island of Flores. For centuries the people who lived here told tales of little, hairy people.

KERRY GRANT (University of New England, Australia): Well, they talk about being scared of three things: one is elephants, one is tigers, and one is the little people of the forest.

RICHARD ROBERTS (University of Wollongong): Small people, maybe a meter tall, hairy, with sloping foreheads, thick eyebrow ridges and no chin...and they used to come up to the village. They used to raid their crops, until, one day, they stole a baby. And that was it. The villagers decided to chase them out of their cave, and that was the last they saw of what they called the Ebu Gogo which is translated as "the grandmother who eats everything."

ROBERT KRULWICH: Ebu Gogo: learned people, scholars, dismissed these tales as folklore. But then a team of Australian archeologists digging in this cave, Liang Bua, it's called, discovered something simply astounding. At first, they thought it was a child.

MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD (University of New England): They thought it was a young child because the skeleton was very, very small. The Individual was about a meter tall.

ROBERT KRULWICH: About the size of a modern three year old. But then they looked more closely at the skull. The lines on top here would be different if it was a child's skull, further apart. And the teeth...This was no child.

MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: It's, in fact, an adult. The wear and tear on the teeth shows that this individual was an adult, probably aged about 30. It was a female. We already knew she was very, very small, so then we knew we had something quite unusual.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Unusual is an understatement. Jared Diamond is a scientist and author.

JARED DIAMOND: To me, when I heard of this, I immediately said to myself, "This is the most amazing discovery in any field of science in at least the last 10 years."

ROBERT KRULWICH: That big?

JARED DIAMOND: Yeah.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Why?

JARED DIAMOND: Why? Because it's the most drastically different human that existed in the last million years.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Just to give you a taste for this, I am about six feet tall. Now here, this is what a full-grown pygmy looks like, a 24 year old adult pygmy. Let's check it out...about four and a half feet tall. And here is Homo floresiensis. Let's check this...a little over three feet tall. That's about half my size.

MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: It's the smallest human species ever identified anywhere in the world from any time.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Wait a second," said this well-respected Indonesian anthropologist. Teuko Jacob says, "I think she's one of us, our species, but with a rare disease."

TEUKO JACOB (Gadjah Mada University): Therefore there's a small brain, microencephaly.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Microencephaly can severely retard growth in modern people. So she's one of us with a growth disease?

TEUKO JACOB: I'm sure about it.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "Well, you're wrong," said the Australian team.

RICHARD ROBERTS: There's no chance at all that it's a pathologically deformed individual of our species.

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Welcome to paleoanthropology.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, since the debate here is highly technical, I visited Ralph Holloway, one of the world's preeminent ancient skull experts.

Less than this?

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Less than many chimpanzees.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And since he's got a cast of the lady's skull, I asked him, "Does it look like our species? Like Homo sapiens? This is a human being. Are these new creatures that you've seen...do they look like this? Or are they..."

RALPH HOLLOWAY: No.

ROBERT KRULWICH: No. They're different in some fundamental way?

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Absolutely.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Ralph has examined this cast of her brain cavity, and it's not like ours, he says.

RALPH HOLLOWAY: It's low. It's broad.

ROBERT KRULWICH: You're sure of this.

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Absolutely.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So what we may have here is a brand new flavor of human. But if we do, how'd this creature get so small?

The Australians believe that Homo floresiensis descends, as we do, from the original, earlier human, Homo erectus, who came out of Africa and spread to Europe and Asia. But as best scientists can tell, Homo erectus probably wasn't advanced enough to build boats. So how'd they get to the island?

Jared theorizes that early humans reached Flores by a land bridge.

JARED DIAMOND: All this was going on during the Ice Ages, when, around the world, a lot of water was locked up in glaciers so sea level was low.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So what today is water, then was land. You could have walked there conceivably?

JARED DIAMOND: No, you couldn't walk there, but the water gaps were narrower.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Those gaps were so narrow it didn't take much to swim or float across. Other creatures did.

JARED DIAMOND: Elephants did it. Monkeys did it. If monkeys could do it, why couldn't these dumb humans do it?

ROBERT KRULWICH: But after they got there, he says, the Ice Age ended. Glaciers melted, the ocean rose, and these early humans were stranded. And this may explain why they got so small.

RICHARD ROBERTS: They get small on an island where there are no major predators and where there are not that many nutrients, so you really don't want to be eating any more than you need to if you want to survive. So for reasons for avoiding starvation, it's more efficient to keep small.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So you're not surprised then that this group of human-types could become very small?

JARED DIAMOND: There're lots of big animals that arrive on small islands and then, over evolutionary time, they shrink on...shrink in size.

ROBERT KRULWICH: There are islands where instead of hippos there are pigmy hippos; instead of buffalo, there are pigmy buffalo; instead of elephants, there are elephants one-eighth normal scale. So maybe people landed on Flores, and they got smaller, too—one half our size. The amazing thing, though, is their brains were a third our size.

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Small, small. That's under chimpanzee. And here it is associated with supposedly sophisticated stone tools. What the hell have they found?

KERRY GRANT: The evidence is showing us that something with such a little brain may have been more capable of doing a lot more things than we originally thought.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The Australians say they found, at the cave site, traces of campfire, so the little people may have been cooking with fire. They found stone tools nearby that may or may not belong to them but they look pretty sophisticated.

And remember, these people hunted and ate dwarf elephants, so... Here's one getting up. Check out the sharp tusks. And look at this one's tusks. And, say the paleontologists, they did okay hunting and eating formidable prey 'cause not all island species get small.

JARED DIAMOND: Warm-blooded animals shrink on islands. Cold-blooded animals often expand on islands, to fill the niche left by lions and tigers that could not get out there.

ROBERT KRULWICH: The evidence suggests little people ate Komodo dragon. And these guys weigh in at what?

JARED DIAMOND: Up to 500 pounds. But it's worse than that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Because back then, apparently, Komodo dragons were even bigger, and if you get near their mouths... You see that spit?

JARED DIAMOND: It's spit that contains botulism bacteria and anthrax and other things you wouldn't want to get infected by, really nasty bacteria.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, most likely, if you were three feet tall, you'd want to hunt these animals in groups.

Would that, in your sense require some kind of signaling or language or "Watch out, Joe! Here comes the lizard,"?

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Yeah, I tend to be in that camp. I really do think that communal hunting, and so forth, has to involve language.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Language, tools, technology, maybe the little people did all that, but if they did it with brains a third our size, those brains would be very different, radically different.

RALPH HOLLOWAY: And that may be one of the great lessons of this, if it turns out...you know, it may tell us...Hey...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh, you're suggesting that maybe this brain is organized differently so it can do more in a little space?

RALPH HOLLOWAY: Oh, it's definitely organized differently, and it may have done more in a little bit of space, absolutely.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And if that's true, brain scientists would have a whole new model for human intelligence, and that's huge.

Meanwhile, back at the cave site, the Australians say they've discovered fragments from seven additional individuals, all, they claim, appear to be little people.

But the biggest shock was yet to come: the age of these remains. Paleontologists say that the first Homo erectus creatures arrived on Flores something like 800,000 years ago. So scientists figured, "Well, then, these skeletons would be old."

KIRA WESTAWAY (University of Wollongong): We were all expecting it to be may be sixty, a hundred thousand years old.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But when they aged these bones, one sample was only 18,000 years old. In paleontology, that's like the day before yesterday.

KIRA WESTAWAY: The fact that it came out at 18,000 was pretty much a shock to everybody.

ROBERT KRULWICH: A shock because that means that these little people were alive during, well, modern times.

MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: We know that modern humans have been in that area for at least 50,000 years.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So, if you do the math, little people and big people shared this island for over 30,000 years!

JARED DIAMOND: The final question that everybody is too shy to ask is, well er, uh, um, "Did we, or didn't we have sex with them?"

ROBERT KRULWICH: Because if little people became a different species, they branched away from humans and couldn't have babies with us, and wouldn't want to.

JARED DIAMOND: My bet is we did not have sex with them. And here's my reasoning. I would have predicted that they would have been really nasty, just like any humans would be really nasty.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Because looking at the other was like, this is an other. I don't know why he's doing this.

JARED DIAMOND: That's right. That's right.

ROBERT KRULWICH: To test this you'd want to analyze the little people's DNA.

RICHARD ROBERTS: Then we can compare their DNA with our DNA and we'll have a case for whether we may or may not have interbred as we came through Southeast Asia on our way to Australia.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So what happened to the little people of Flores? It looks like they were wiped out—along with those little elephants they were hunting—by a major volcanic eruption on the island about 12,000 years ago. Or—and this is not impossible—could the Ebu Gogo still exist?

JARED DIAMOND: No.

ROBERT KRULWICH: That's one view. Here's another.

KERRY GRANT: I did have somebody speak to me, a geologist, and he didn't want to be named because, of course, he felt like if he told people he'd seen little people, people would think he'd seen aliens or something like that. So, at the moment, we are going to follow these stories of an actual cave where they may have been living, and we, we do intend to go and excavate this actual cave.

RICHARD ROBERTS: Folklore has it that they, they just simply ran over the volcano nearby and disappeared further west. So, perhaps in some other part of Flores, they might still be living. It's not outrageous, but it's highly improbable. But it'd be worth looking, just in case that did happen to be the case.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And now we are going to make something. I'm not going to tell you what it is we're making; you'll have to guess. But we will give you all the ingredients. We will do this in an English kitchen, so we will use English measures. So this is a recipe for something.

Can you guess what that something is?

This recipe is key to the future:

Take 3 liters of water.

Add sufficient fat to make a small bar of soap.

Take enough carbon for 55 pencil leads.

Mix with enough phosphorus to produce 135 match heads.

(A generous helping of calcium always improves the result.)

Take enough sulfur to produce a couple of stink bombs.

Extract every atom of iron and zinc from a galvanized roof tack.

Garnish with traces of magnesium and potassium.

Season with a pinch of salt.

Bake in an oven at 37 degrees for 270 days.

Monitor carefully until incubation is complete.

We will return to the subject of making babies later in the program when we talk about stem cells, which by the way, are, again, teeny, teeny little things.

But we shouldn't dwell only on small things, because sometimes big things, very big things, can be exciting and scary. So, if I may...

Thank you.

Credits

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NOVA scienceNOW is a trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0229297. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

© 2005 WGBH Educational Foundation

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Image credit: (Homo floresiensis) © National Geographic Society

Related Links

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    Bert Roberts of Australia's University of Wollongong answers viewer questions about Homo floresiensis.

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  • Compare the Brains

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