This is truly amazing. An expedition of paleoanthropologists have
just announced the discovery of a whole new species of extinct human.
What's incredible is not only how different these humans were from
us, but how recently they managed to stick around. In fact, if it
weren't for a violent twist of fate, they might even be alive
to this day:
The remains of a tiny and hitherto
unknown species of human that lived as recently as 13,000 years ago
have been discovered on an Indonesian island.
The discovery has been heralded as
the most important palaeoanthropological find for 50 years, and has
radically altered the accepted picture of human evolution.
The skull and bones of one adult
female, and fragments from up to six other specimens, were found in
the Liang Bua limestone caves on Flores Island, which lies at the
eastern tip of Java.
The female skeleton, known as LB1 —
or by the nickname “Ebu” — has been assigned to a
new species within the genus Homo — Homo
floresiensis. Examination of the remains shows members of the
species stood just 1 metre tall and had a brain no bigger than a
Yes, you read that correctly. The adults of this species topped
out at just three feet tall, about as big as your average homo
sapien three-year-old. Go ahead and call them Hobbits
... even the scientists can't
And no, this is not some sort of Weekly World News
It's all very sober and peer-reviewed, even if it's damned incredible
stuff. For the most detailed rundown of the backstory of the species'
discovery, I recommend this interview
of expedition member Peter Brown in the latest edition of
It's been a pretty topsy-turvy couple of weeks in
paleoanthropology. Just last week, we learned that the existence of a
of human hair louse found only in the Americas points to some
sort of fairly recent contact between American Indians and a
lingering remnant homo erectus population somewhere in Asia.
Researchers were so excited by this development that they were
already psyching themselves up to conduct an investigation of human
pubic lice, just to see how (ahem) close the contact really was
between these two species.
Homo erectus still loafing around the planet a mere 25,000
years ago? I thought that was a pretty big deal at the time. But an
entire island full of teeny-tiny people, only a few thousand years
removed from our own time? That's freakin' major.
What this also means is that little more than 25,000-30,000 years
ago there were at least four separate and distinct species of
humans wandering the planet.
That's right, four. In fact, if you accept some scientific
assertions about what makes us human, then there could have been as
many as six coexistent species at the time — three of whom are
still alive to this day.
Here's a rundown of the four/six human species in question, by
order of their most recent appearance on the scene. The first four
are by their official taxonomies, while the latter two are presented
for the most part as educated speculation:
HOMO FLORESIENSIS: The new discovery.
Amazingly, it appears as if these little guys, and not us,
were the most recent species of humans to evolve. While this
interpretation is subject to change (research on this species is
still in its infancy), the oldest fossil evidence so far uncovered
indicates a branching off from the parent population between 78,000
and 94,000 years ago, long after our species of human first showed
up in Africa (see below). They might still be with us to this day,
if a massive volcanic eruption hadn't dropped a giant turd in their
island-paradise punch bowl.
Then again, maybe the volcano didn't
kill them all off. The scientists who discovered them note that
island folk tales speak
of contact with a people very much like floresiensis up
until the arrival of European colonists only a few hundred years
But while floresiensis may have come along after us,
they did not evolve from us, however. Floresiensis in
all likelihood is a direct
descendant of our own immediate parent, homo
erectus. It's gratifying to know that even in this late
stage of his existence, good ol' pappy erectus was still able
to get it up ...
HOMO SAPIENS: Otherwise known as “us
guys.” While recent
fossil discoveries have pushed the age of the species sapiens
to about 160,000 years ago, we don't seem to have amounted to much
during the first 60,000 years or so of our existence. For the most
part, we just sorta putzed around Ethiopia until about 100,000 B.C.
... after which we literally swarmed the planet, nearly wiping out
every other species of human in the process.
HOMO NEANDERTHALENSIS: These guys were straight
Squat, heavy-boned, and powerfully muscled, a Neanderthal
would be king
of the barroom-brawl if he were around today. He isn't —
fortunately for us modern barflies — having fallen victim to
climate change and probable encroachment from those swarming, if
more effete, homo sapiens. Homo neanderthalensis first
appeared in Europe and West Asia about 300,000 years ago, peaked
around the same time we showed up on the planet (see above), and
managed to hold it together until about 28,000 years ago — a
blink of the eye in geological terms.
Early speculation was that
interbreeding diffused neanderthalensis into the sapiens
gene pool. Fossil evidence indicates that hybridization
between the two species, if it happened, wasn't terribly
successful; and recent
genetic research shows no
evidence of unique neanderthalensis genetics in modern
Europeans. This bolsters the notion that they were a separate
species of human (homo neanderthalensis), rather than a
subspecies (homo sapiens neanderthalis). Nevertheless, in
their time they were our closest relatives, sharing the unique (if
unofficial) classification with us of “guys who wear clothes.”
HOMO ERECTUS: The parent of all three species
of humans outlined above (and, considering how he got around, God
knows what else),
erectus was a very
old and successful species of human, first arriving on the scene
million years ago, and finally giving up the ghost just 25,000
years ago (which, suspiciously, is the same time the final
neanderthal breathed his last). Homo erectus was the genius
who first figured out how to make fire and complicated tools like
axes and knives ... none of which, unfortunately, was of much use to
him when us sapiens came a-knocking on his door.
addition to giving rise to the rest of humanity, erectus also
bequeathed to the ancestors of modern American Indians his sacred
collection of ancient
hominid cooties before passing on — a gift that has kept
on giving now for thousands of years.
Well, that's it for Us and the Commonly Accepted Humans of Recent
Antiquity that We Killed Off. And now, as promised, here are the rest
... the living “human” wannabes:
HOMO PANISCUS: Both homo paniscus and
homo troglodytes (see below) are not in any way broadly
accepted taxonomical divisions yet, but rather names given to them
by a small
but determined group of biogeneticists.
This is because both species are still alive today; in fact, they
are quite well known to us ... as bonobos (more commonly known as
pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (aka pan
Nevertheless, the bonobo (also known as the
pygmy chimp) is widely regarded as our closest relative, regardless
of taxonomical esoterica. They possess social
and behavioral patterns that are eerily humanoid, have a
tendency to walk
upright (when the environment suits them), possess a highly
capability, and share in excess of 99%
of their critical genetic makeup with us. That's a good start,
if you ask me — but I'd first let the scientists duke this out
before coming to any conclusions.
HOMO TROGLODYTES: Chimps.
Despite how cool it would be for our little furry brethren to be
considered people too, one of the problems I have with reclassifying
them into the homo (i.e. “human”) genus is that,
to the best of my knowledge, the earliest accepted representative of
our genus shows up in the fossil record only about 2.5 million years
ago. The most common assessment of when chimpanzees and humans
diverged has it happening around 5.5
million years ago. There was some sort of pre-human
critter or two roaming around the veldt at that time, but none
of them have been blessed with the vaunted homo
In other words, in order to rejigger chimps (and
bonobos) into the genus homo, we would have to either
discover evidence of a later branch-off date (which is possible: the
date given above is admitted to be somewhat arbitrary), or widen the
homo club to include our primitive australopithecine
granddaddies (also possible: the afore-mentioned erectus once
wasn't considered to be homo, either).
Still, chimps can
pretty human when they want to be, what with their primitive
tool-using abilities ... not to mention their
tendency to engage in organized
warfare against one another. And the possibility of a “natural”
(i.e. copulated) human-chimp
hybrid, although highly unlikely, is
not considered entirely out
of the question either.
Yeah, yeah ... I know. Yuck.
At the very least, getting chimps and bonobos reclassified would
provide 11-year-old boys with loads of sophomoric summer vacation
fun. Can you imagine anything more hilarious to a pre-teen than the
thought of running down to the local zoo and calling all the
chimpanzees a “bunch of homos?”
Not that I would have ever done a thing like that, mind
But there you have it. Four recognized (and very different)
species of humans once occupying the planet at the same time, and two
other possible species of humans still living with us today.
Then there's the intriguing fact that of the four recognized
species on the list, all but one of them are extinct. Not only that,
but after coexisting with us for almost 90% of our history on this
planet, they all died out at roughly the same time. What's up with
It may be our breeding ... or lack thereof. One of the creepier
discoveries of our advanced genetic age is the fact that homo
sapiens are one of the least
genetically diverse animals on the planet. In short, we are
freakishly inbred — like an entire planet overrun with
appalachians. Genetically speaking, the concept of “race”
as it relates to human beings is meaningless.
Inbreeding is usually considered very
bad because it increases the possibility for unhealthy genetic
traits to be passed off from one generation to another. On
the other hand, if a species is really, really lucky, useful
genetic traits will be reinforced, thus speeding
up evolution and — by extension — that
of its environment.
Sounds like us, all right. It was recently discovered, for
instance, that around 30,000 years ago our ancestors suddenly
experienced a dramatic
spike in longevity. Within a few generations, the number of old
people (i.e. folks 60 years old or older) hanging around the tribe
increased by a factor of five. That's a lot of old farts — and
in those pre-internet days, a
lot of accumulated knowledge to pass around.
The other humans didn't get this bonus. Certainly poor old,
hulking homo neanderthalensis didn't; although considering his
fast, die young, and leave a busted-up corpse” lifestyle,
who could tell?
Other factors may have been involved in our rapid global
ascendancy, but it seems mighty telling that the two major alternate
lines of humans both died out within 5,000 years of this development.
That sounds like about the right amount of time for one species to
displace another on a global scale.
As for the little
guys ... well, it's too bad their island went all kablooey on
them. I would have liked to have had a chance to meet one.