‘Small’ discovery anything but

“I would have been no more surprised if I’d found an alien spaceship on the island of Flores,” David Brown said in regards to the apparently new species of human ancestor he was involved in discovering and naming Homo floresiensis.

Brown, an Australian paleo-anthropologist, visited USF Thursday evening to share with a full house of students, faculty and the public the groundbreaking discoveries he and his colleagues made on the small Indonesian island of Flores.

Brown said his quest for more clues as to the first descendants of Australia led to the research and excavation of the site in Flores. What he found there was not what he expected.

Brown described a small human-like creature that has recently been fanaticized by the media with the term “hobbit.” He said that the creature had a smaller brain than modern humans and a much heavier frame with a lot more muscle, and therefore looked similar to a dwarf.

“They probably had the strength of an adult chimp, which is equivalent to about four Arnold Schwarzeneggers on steroids,” Brown said.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating and were able to determine that the remains they had found were appoximately 18,000 years old. Nothing like this had ever been found before, Brown said.

“People with this brain size were only supposed to have existed in Africa about 3 million years ago,” Brown said.

One of the most spectacular discoveries related to the remains is the sharp stone tools in the same geological region and time era as the Homo floresiensis. Other species of human ancestors with similar body proportions and brain sizes have never previously been connected with the creation and use of sharp stone tools, he said.

“It’s not the size of the brain that makes the difference though,” Brown said. “It’s more the wiring.”

This led Brown to further investigate where these people came from. They are possibly direct descendants of Homo erectus, who had migrated from Africa to the island of Flores via a land bridge that was present at the time, Brown said.

“We think they arrived big and got smaller,” he said.

This is consistent with an evolutionary pattern that Brown mentioned.

“Over time, on islands, things smaller than a rabbit get larger, and things bigger than a rabbit get bigger,” Brown said.

There is evidence that modern humans existed in Australia as early as 50,000 years ago, Brown said. Thus, this makes it possible that Homo floresiensis co-existed with modern humans.

“The idea that we shared the planet with another species so recently resonates with all of us,” anthropology professor Lorena Madrigal said. “It seems that it was only yesterday that we were not alone.”