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The Controversy Journey

Since its discovery in 2003, the evolutionary status of Homo floresiensis has been subject to lively debate among the archaeology and palaeoanthropology community.

Some have seen the hominin as a new species, separate from our own species, with the diminutive stature as the outcome of island dwarfism, while others view its size as a result of a congenital deformity of modern Homo sapiens. The discovery of skeletal remains belonging to multiple individuals, all exhibiting a reduced stature, supports the presence of a unique, small-bodied hominin population on Flores. The suite of archaic features found in these skeletal remains further suggests that Homo floresiensis descended from earlier hominins, possibly the Homo erectus population that was already present in China and Indonesia by about 1.6–1.8 million years ago, and attained its small stature through processes of island dwarfing. On the other hand, a number of pathologies and genetic disorders have been proposed to explain the finds as belonging to unusually small modern humans. These disorders include microcephaly, Laron syndrome, hypothyroid cretinism and Down Syndrome.

In many ways, this debate stems largely from the original dating of the Homo floresiensis finds at Liang Bua which placed the disappearance of the small-sized hominins at around 12, 000 years ago. This date suggested that Homo floresiensis survived in the region until long after modern humans arrived in Australia by about 50, 000 to 60, 000 years ago. Thus, the scenario that the skeletal remains could represent those of a modern human was a valid possibility in terms of timing. However, the chronology of the Homo floresiensis fossil-bearing deposits has been recently revised to be between 100, 000 and 60, 000 years ago, and the Homo floresiensis tool-bearing deposits to as recently as 50, 000 years ago. Given that modern humans did not arrive in Sahul (the continent that comprises mainland Australia, Tasmania, New Guinea and the neighbouring islands) until 50, 000 to 60, 000 years ago, it is more parsimonious that the hominin remains at Liang Bua belong to a separate hominin species rather than Homo sapiens.

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Homo Floresiensis Uncovered: The Science of ‘the Hobbit’

University of Wollongong

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