1. Education
Send to a Friend via Email

The Little Lady of Flores

Shaking the Family Tree

By

Homo floresiensis (Liang Bua Cave, Indonesia) and a modern human skull

Homo floresiensis (Liang Bua Cave, Indonesia) and a modern human skull

Peter Brown
In the middle of the string of islands that curve out between Sumatra and East Timor is a tiny Indonesian island called Flores. Six meters deep in the sediments of a large limestone cave called Liang Bua was found the skull, mandible, pelvis, and leg bones of a tiny female hominid, a distant and previously unknown relative of ours, and named by the world press the Little Lady of Flores.

According to researchers from the University of New England at Armidale and the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology, the little Lady of Flores is a representative of a newly identified human ancestor, named Homo floresiensis, or Flores Man. A radiocarbon date of 18,000 years before the present was taken on the skeletal material—-these bones are not fossilized, and were described as having the consistency of mashed potatoes at the time of the excavation. The date has been firmly substantiated by other dating methods (TL and ISRL) on the soils in which the little hominid is buried.

Flores and the Assemblage

Animal bone found with the hominid include fish, frog, snake, tortoise, birds, rodents, and bats, some of which are charred, presumably evidence of food preparation. Also in the cave are bones of a dwarfed species of Stegodon (an extinct pygmy elephant) and Komodo dragon. And, best of all, the cave includes a stone tool assemblage, including points, perforators, blades and micro-blades, bipolar cores, burin cores and gobs of stone flaking debris. Some of the tools were found in direct association with Stegodon, suggesting H. floresiensis was hunting them. No hominid remains that could be assigned to modern humans have been found in the Pleistocene deposits; these are, according to researchers Peter Brown and MIchael Morwood, the tool kits of Flores man. Evidence for other examples of H. floresiensis was found in the cave, dated as long ago as 38,000 years ago, and a second, less certain example but of the same size and stature has been dated to 74,000 years ago.

The hominid is surprising in a number of ways. The Little Lady is only three feet tall with a correspondingly small brain case. This is an extremely small size for a hominid, compared to the hominid species Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Our ancient African ancestor Australopithecus was that small, certainly; but not Homo erectus. Most modern humans that have very small statures are found in rainforests of Asia, Africa, and Melanesia, and are thought to have a small stature for climatic reasons—-but by and large they have large cranial capacities, like the rest of us big-brained humans. The researchers believe that the little lady’s ancestors arrived on Flores Island some 800,000 years ago or more, as full-sized Homo erectus, but that over the millennia, isolated on the island, their size decreased as a response to a limited food supply or other environmental causes. Such body size shrinkage has been well documented in other large bodied animals species—-Stegodon is an example, as a matter of fact—-but never in Homo before.

The Importance of Flores

A different species of human walked this earth as recently as 18,000 years ago, long after Homo habilis, Homo erectus, even 10,000 years after the Neanderthals had died out. This is breath-taking news.

Researchers are hoping for DNA to be recovered from the bones—-there are, after all European Neanderthals of the same age that have produced DNA—-and the Little Lady has scientists combing the nearby islands of southeast Asia for more evidence of our lost ancestors.

Sources on Flores

Brown, Peter et al.
2004 A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature 431:1056–1061

Dalton, Rex
2004 Little lady of Flores forces rethink of human evolution. Nature 431:1029

Lahr, Marti Mirazon and Robert Foley
2004 Human evolution writ small. Nature 431:1043–1044.

Morwood, Michael J. et el.
2004 Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia. Nature 431:1087–1091

Thanks to reader Jacquelynne Cawthorne for the suggestion.

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.