New evidence on human evolution on the Indonesian island of Flores

IN 1957 Theodor Verhoeven, a Dutch Catholic priest who was also an archaeologist, found ancient stone tools on the Indonesian island of Flores. 

New evidence on human evolution on the Indonesian island of Flores

The artifacts were close to the fossils of a stegodon, a dwarf elephant which lived around 800,000 years ago.

Verhoeven concluded that early humans were on Flores back then but the scientific community dismissed his claims. Papers appearing in Nature magazine this month, however, show Verhoeven had been right.

Only two of our ancient relatives, it was thought, survived into comparatively recent times.

The Neanderthals were in Europe and Asia until about 30,000 years ago. Stocky short-limbed “cave men” with enormous noses, wouldn’t be modern women’s ideal sexual partners, but our ancestors, it seems, weren’t so choosy; today’s Europeans carry Neanderthal genes.

These lost cousins of ours entered popular culture in the 1920s but another ancient relative is less well known.

A cave in Siberia bears the name of an 18th-century hermit named Dionisij (Denis) who lived there. In 2008, Russian archaeologists found the finger-bone of a young female in the cave. She had lived around 41,000 years ago.

Her DNA survived intact due to the cold climate. Analysis of it showed that she was neither a modern human, nor a Neanderthal. The Denisovans became the third hominid species, or sub-species, known to have survived into comparatively recent times.

In 2003, partial skeletons of nine tiny human-like individuals were discovered at Liang Bua cave, 74km away from Mata Menge where Verhoeven had worked.

Nicknamed “the hobbit”, Flores Man had lived 70,000 years ago. Verhoeven’s claim that the island had ancient inhabitants was vindicated. However, his suggestion that they were there 700,000 years earlier had yet to be proved.

The hobbit’s brain was the size of a chimpanzee’s. Being only a metre high wouldn’t disqualify him membership of our club; some modern humans, such as the pygmies, are small, so was the hobbit a tiny variant of Homo sapiens?

No. It would be tens of thousands of years before modern humans reached Indonesia. Could he be related to the famous Lucy, a pre-human primate living in Africa around 3.5m years ago? Impossible.

How could an Australopithecus have travelled from Africa to such a remote location? Clearly, the remains unearthed at Liang Bua belonged to a hitherto unknown species.

The hobbit was named Homo floresiensis, the designation Homo acknowledging that he was human. The species name floresiensis, rather than sapiens, indicates that Flores Man was not quite “one of us”.

The hobbit discovery led to renewed interest in Verhoeven’s site at Mata Menge. In October 2014, after years of excavation there, a piece of an adult lower jaw, and five teeth, were found. These have now been extensively studied.

A wisdom tooth had erupted, so the jaw belonged to an adult. According to the articles in Nature, the Mata Menge hobbit was even smaller than the Liang Bua ones; he was the size of a modern five-year-old child.

The teeth found at Mata Menge are similar to the ones at Liang Bua. The thickness of the jaw links it to Homo erectus, who originated in Africa 1.9m years ago and spread throughout Asia.

We too come from Homo erectus. There were several branches among his descendants. The branch that led to the Neanderthals the Denisovans and us, however, was not the one which gave rise to the hobbit.

Radioactivity levels of the soil, above and below where the Mata Menge bones were found, show that the hobbit had lived around 700,000 years ago.

Verhoefen had been right after all. Erectus descendants seem to have arrived on Flores around a million years ago. Like the stegodon pigmy elephants, they became small because food was scarce.

Verhoefen died in 1990. A giant tree rat, which became extinct recently, is named after him.

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