[Paper] The spatio-temporal distribution of archaeological and faunal finds at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia) in light of the revised chronology for Homo floresiensis

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New Open Access paper in the Journal of Human Evolution examines the distribution stone artefacts and faunal remains of Liang Bua over 190,000 years. Changes in the assemblage suggest that modern humans arrived to Liang Bua around 46,000 years ago.

Liang Bua, the type site of Homo floresiensis, is a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores with sedimentary deposits currently known to range in age from about 190 thousand years (ka) ago to the present. Recent revision of the stratigraphy and chronology of this depositional sequence suggests that skeletal remains of H. floresiensis are between ∼100 and 60 ka old, while cultural evidence of this taxon occurs until ∼50 ka ago. Here we examine the compositions of the faunal communities and stone artifacts, by broad taxonomic groups and raw materials, throughout the ∼190 ka time interval preserved in the sequence. Major shifts are observed in both the faunal and stone artifact assemblages that reflect marked changes in paleoecology and hominin behavior, respectively. Our results suggest that H. floresiensis and Stegodon florensis insularis, along with giant marabou stork (Leptoptilos robustus) and vulture (Trigonoceps sp.), were likely extinct by ∼50 ka ago. Moreover, an abrupt and statistically significant shift in raw material preference due to an increased use of chert occurs ∼46 thousand calibrated radiocarbon (14C) years before present (ka cal. BP), a pattern that continues through the subsequent stratigraphic sequence. If an increased preference for chert does, in fact, characterize Homo sapiens assemblages at Liang Bua, as previous studies have suggested (e.g., Moore et al., 2009), then the shift observed here suggests that modern humans arrived on Flores by ∼46 ka cal. BP, which would be the earliest cultural evidence of modern humans in Indonesia.

Source: The spatio-temporal distribution of archaeological and faunal finds at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia) in light of the revised chronology for Homo floresiensis – ScienceDirect

Evidence of fire-making in Liang Bua

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Liang Bua. Source: Cosmo Magazine 20160630

A microstratigraphic study of the Hobbit cave, Liang Bua, reveals the use of fire between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago. The dates suggest that Homo sapiens used the cave after Homo floresiensis and fueling speculation that modern humans were responsible for the extinction of the hobbits.

Initial micromorphological results from Liang Bua, Flores (Indonesia): Site formation processes and hominin activities at the type locality of Homo floresiensis
Journal of Archaeological Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2016.06.004

Fire discovery sheds new light on ‘hobbit’ demise
Science Daily, 29 June 2016

Modern humans may have smoked ‘hobbits’ out of their caves and into extinction
Mother Nature Network, 29 June 2016

Gap Between “Hobbits” and Modern Humans Narrows
The Scientist, 29 June 2016

Fireplace discovery sheds light on hobbits’ demise
Cosmos, 30 June 2016

Humans did wipe out real-life ‘hobbits’, say scientists
The Independent, 1 July 2016

Liang Bua, a karstic cave located on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia, is best known for yielding the holotype of the diminutive hominin Homo floresiensis from Late Pleistocene sediments. Modern human remains have also been recovered from the Holocene deposits, and abundant archaeological and faunal remains occur throughout the sequence. The cave, the catchment in which it is located and the gross aggradational phases of the sediment sequence have all been subject to a great deal of scientific scrutiny since the discovery of the holotype of H. floresiensis in 2003. A recent program of geoarchaeological research has extended analyses of the site’s deposits to the microstratigraphic (micromorphological) level. The stratigraphic sequence in the cave is well defined but complex, comprising interstratified sediments of diverse lithologies and polygenetic origins, including volcanic tephras, fine-grained colluvium, coarse autogenic limestone gravels, speleothems and anthropogenic sediments, such as combustion features. The sedimentological and chemical heterogeneity suggest that processes of site formation and diagenesis varied markedly through time, both laterally and vertically. We present initial results from samples collected in 2014 from an excavation area near the rear of the cave, which yielded radiocarbon ages from charcoal that fill an important temporal gap in the chrono-stratigraphic sequence of previously excavated areas of the site. The results indicate marked changes in site environment and hominin activity during the Late Pleistocene, relating primarily to the degree to which the cave was connected to the hydrogeological system and to the varying intensities of use of the cave by hominins. Importantly, we identify anthropogenic signs of fire-use at the site between 41 and 24 thousand years ago, most likely related to the presence of modern humans.

Article link here.

Another Hobbit paper argues against Down Syndrome theory

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While the excitement was brewing over the discovery of 700,000-year-old hobbit bones in Flores, another paper published at the same time evaluates the theory that H. floresiensis presented with signs of Down Syndrome. The paper noted significant differences between the hominid bones and those with Down Sydrome and concluded that the bones were unique.

A Critical Evaluation of the Down Syndrome Diagnosis for LB1, Type Specimen of Homo floresiensis
PLoS One, 08 June 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155731

Homo floresiensis Remains Unique, Valid Species
Sci-News, 13 June 2016

The Liang Bua hominins from Flores, Indonesia, have been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate since their initial description and classification in 2004. These remains have been assigned to a new species, Homo floresiensis, with the partial skeleton LB1 as the type specimen. The Liang Bua hominins are notable for their short stature, small endocranial volume, and many features that appear phylogenetically primitive relative to modern humans, despite their late Pleistocene age. Recently, some workers suggested that the remains represent members of a small-bodied island population of modern Austro-Melanesian humans, with LB1 exhibiting clinical signs of Down syndrome. Many classic Down syndrome signs are soft tissue features that could not be assessed in skeletal remains. Moreover, a definitive diagnosis of Down syndrome can only be made by genetic analysis as the phenotypes associated with Down syndrome are variable. Most features that contribute to the Down syndrome phenotype are not restricted to Down syndrome but are seen in other chromosomal disorders and in the general population. Nevertheless, we re-evaluated the presence of those phenotypic features used to support this classification by comparing LB1 to samples of modern humans diagnosed with Down syndrome and euploid modern humans using comparative morphometric analyses. We present new data regarding neurocranial, brain, and symphyseal shape in Down syndrome, additional estimates of stature for LB1, and analyses of inter- and intralimb proportions. The presence of cranial sinuses is addressed using CT images of LB1. We found minimal congruence between the LB1 phenotype and clinical descriptions of Down syndrome. We present important differences between the phenotypes of LB1 and individuals with Down syndrome, and quantitative data that characterize LB1 as an outlier compared with Down syndrome and non-Down syndrome groups. Homo floresiensis remains a phenotypically unique, valid species with its roots in Plio-Pleistocene Homo taxa.

Full story here.

Hobbits older than expected

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A new paper in Nature has revised the dates of the Hobbit, once thought to be 12,000 years old, to be an older 50,000 years old. This period roughly coincides with the time modern humans started appearing in the region, and while it’s tempting to think the two events are related it’s still too early to tell.

Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia
Sutikna et al.
Nature, doi:10.1038/nature17179

Suspicious: Hobbits Vanish When Modern Humans Appear
Discovery News, 30 March 2016

Indonesian ‘Hobbits’ may have died out sooner than thought
Griffith University, 30 March 2016

A decade ago, researchers reported that evolutionary cousins of modern humans, nicknamed hobbits, lived until fairly recently in an Indonesian cave
AP, via US News, 30 March 2016

The ‘hobbit’ was a separate species of human, new dating reveals
Science, 30 March 2016

Scientists: New evidence Indonesian ‘Hobbits’ disappeared 50K years ago
KVAL, 31 March 2016

Diminutive ‘Hobbit’ people vanished earlier than previously known, scientists say
Reuters, via Malay Mail, 31 May 2016

Homo Floresiensis: A Profile Of The Extinct ‘Hobbits’ Of Indonesia
Tech Times, 31 May 2016

New Homo Floresiensis Dates May Quash Cryptozoology Theories About ‘Hobbits’
Forbes, 31 May 2016

The ‘hobbits’ were extinct much earlier than first thought
The Conversation AU, 31 March 2016

‘Hobbits’ extinct much earlier than first thought
Australian Geographic, 31 March 2016

Forget Tolkien, the scientific tale of real-life “hobbits” is even more complex
Ars Technica, 01 April 2016

‘Hobbit’ people were no match for the unstoppable juggernaut of modern man
Tech Insider, 04 April 2016

The Hobbit gets a little older, and science a little wiser
The Conversation AU, 05 April 2016

Homo floresiensis, a primitive hominin species discovered in Late Pleistocene sediments at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia), has generated wide interest and scientific debate. A major reason this taxon is controversial is because the H. floresiensis-bearing deposits, which include associated stone artefacts and remains of other extinct endemic fauna, were dated to between about 95 and 12 thousand calendar years (kyr) ago. These ages suggested that H. floresiensis survived until long after modern humans reached Australia by ~50 kyr ago. Here we report new stratigraphic and chronological evidence from Liang Bua that does not support the ages inferred previously for the H. floresiensis holotype (LB1), ~18 thousand calibrated radiocarbon years before present (kyr cal. BP), or the time of last appearance of this species (about 17 or 13–11 kyr cal. BP). Instead, the skeletal remains of H. floresiensis and the deposits containing them are dated to between about 100 and 60 kyr ago, whereas stone artefacts attributable to this species range from about 190 to 50 kyr in age. Whether H. floresiensis survived after 50 kyr ago—potentially encountering modern humans on Flores or other hominins dispersing through southeast Asia, such as Denisovans12, 13—is an open question.

Nature paper here.

Liang Bua popular with tourists seeking the ‘hobbit’

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Liang Bua. Source: Pos Kupang 20150510

The Liang Bua site in Flores has seen a jump in popularity by foreign tourists due to the discovery of Homo floresiensis, but the site itself is not set up to receive tourists.

Liang Bua. Source: Pos Kupang 20150510

Liang Bua. Source: Pos Kupang 20150510

Turis Asing Dominasi ke Liangbua
Pos Kupang, 10 May 2015
Article is in Bahasa Indonesia

Regency to boost hobbit tourism
Jakarta Post, 11 May 2015

Situs Liang Bua, lokasi ditemukankan tulang manusia purba Flores (Homo Floresiensis) oleh tim penggali dari Arkelogi Indonesia dan asing tanggal 6 September 2003 menyedot perhatian wisatawan asing dari Eropa.

Kunjungan turis asing dari Benua Eropa dari kaum peneliti atau peminat khusus mendominasi kedatangan ke situs yang mendadak terkenal pasca penemuan manusia purba Flores.

Full story here.

Wrist gives hobbit theory the flick

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21 September 2007 (ABC News in Science) – Here’s a news piece about the wrist study which sums up the news quite nicely in layman terms. There’s also a dissenting opinion about the study that’s also food for thought.

Wrist gives hobbit theory the flick
Anna Salleh

The hobbit had wrists more like those of non-human apes than those of modern humans, according to researchers who say their findings are more evidence that Homo floresiensis is a new species.

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Another Homo Floresiensis book review

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07 July 2007 (American Scientist) – Another book review of “A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia” by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee. This review is longer than the previous one feature here, although I don’t think I’m planning to read the book anytime soon.

Choosing One’s Relatives

The discovery of a new hominin species in human ancestry is always exciting, never more so than when it is completely unexpected. And certainly no one anticipated that the fossil remains of such a species would be found in 2003 in Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. But that year a team of archaeologists, anthropologists and geologists from Australia and Indonesia working at Liang Bua uncovered the bonesof a tiny woman, whom they eventually concluded was a hominin of a new species, Homo floresiensis. That bold claim has ignited considerable controversy among paleo-anthropologists.

Now one of the members of the team that found the specimen, Mike Morwood, has written a book titled A New Human, with science writer Penny van Oosterzee as coauthor. Their fascinating account of how the large-scale, multidisciplinary excavation was set up and run shows just how such an investigation should be conducted. They cover everything: the preliminary groundwork to find out who has to be approached to get permissions, with all the politics and administrative matters that are an unavoidable adjunct to such forms of scientific inquiry; the actual business of excavation and the dating of the deposit; and finally, the process of publishing a description of the fossils and their context. Anyone thinking of undertaking such a project would do well to consult this book.

Read the full review of “A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia” from American Scientist.

More books about Homo floresiensis, aka The Hobbit:
A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by M. Morwood and P. van Oosterzee
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

More to be found in the Hobbit lands?

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06 May 2007 (The Age) – The real news of this story is that Dr. Morwood, from the team who discovered the hobbit hominid in Flores, is about to begin an archaeological investigation into the islands of Timor and Sulawesi, near Flores where our favourite controversial hobbit was found. This rest of the story, about finding the existence of other extinct animal and human species a la homo floresiensis is still entirely speculative.

From the hobbit team, more human relations

More bizarre, extinct human species — dwarfs and even giants — could be uncovered in Indonesia’s southern islands, with the Australian discoverer of the “hobbit” set to begin fresh diggings next month.

Mike Morwood — who with fellow Australian Peter Brown led the team that discovered the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, in 2003 — is predicting further species will be uncovered on the islands of Timor and Sulawesi, which are near Flores.

Professor Morwood, with a team headed by Indonesian archaeological professor Fachroel Aziz from Indonesia’s Geological Survey Institute, will soon start excavations in the Atambua Basin of Timor. Afterwards, the team will begin diggings in Sulawesi and will return to the Ling Bua cave in Flores, where the hobbit species was uncovered.

“We predict a number of these islands are probably going to have their own endemic human species, and many of them will be small,” Professor Morwood, from the University of Wollongong said.

Professor Morwood flagged that any new human species found on Timor and Sulawesi would be called Homo timoriensis and Homo celebesiensis (Celebes being the former name of Sulawesi).

He said these new species would have evolved separately on their respective islands for more than a million years. Although they could be similar is size, they would be different enough to warrant their own species name.

Professor Morwood said further archaeological finds would help answer the puzzling question of the ancestry of the hobbit, which could lead to a total redrawing of the human family tree. A popular explanation is that the hobbit — and any species that lived in Timor and Sulawesi — are descended from Homo erectus, which lived in Indonesia, notably Java, for thousands of years. But this was probably wrong, Professor Morwood said.

“Some of the traits of Homo floresiensis are so primitive — they’re more primitive than you find in Homo erectus. It seems likely that the ancestor was something before Homo erectus,” he said.

If true, this would revolutionise our understanding of human history because Homo erectus was believed to be the first early human that was advanced enough to leave Africa.


Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg
Human Origins : The Fossil Record by C. S. Larsen

Small skull, huge controversy

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c. 23 April 2007 (Research|Penn State) Research|Penn State, an online magazine by the Pennsylvana State University has an interesting feature-length article on Dr Bob Eckhart, who leads the charge in debunking the Hobbit myth. While SEAArch has covered plenty in the news about homo floresiensis, this article presents an in-depth look at the arguments against the Hobbit theory and is worth a read for anyone following the story.

Small skull, huge controversy

In October 2004, while working in his lab, Bob Eckhardt heard a report on National Public Radio: A team of archaeologists had unearthed bones of a three-foot-tall humanlike creature on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Based on the shape and size of the skull and other skeletal remains, the archaeologists, led by Michael J. Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, claimed they had discovered a new species of human.

The diminutive biped had a cranium no larger than a chimpanzee’s, yet its bones had been found along with abundant stone tools. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal in the same stratum, along with luminescence dating of surrounding sediments, implied that the skeleton was only 18,000 years old. Considering other earlier archaeological finds on Flores, Morwood and his colleagues concluded that a new human species had evolved from a preceding population of Homo erectus that had been isolated for over 840,000 years on Flores, in the archipelago between Asia and Australia.

Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology in Penn State’s department of kinesiology, added it up. Three feet tall. A tiny brain. Complex stone tools. Evolved in complete isolation in 40,000 generations. He says: “It just didn’t ring true.”

Eckhardt read the scientific papers, published in the British journal Nature, setting forth the findings and conclusions of Morwood’s group. “A lot of things didn’t make sense,” he says. “For instance, the overall height seemed to be off. I took the long-bone measurements from the paper and plugged them into standard regression formulas.” Where Morwood and colleagues estimated an overall height of 1.06 meters for their specimen, Eckhardt came up with figures ranging from 1.15 to 1.33 meters, with an average of 1.25 meters—more than seven inches taller than Morwood’s estimate. Eckhardt also wondered about the proximity of the small cranium to sophisticated stone tools, including points, perforators, blades, and microblades. Over a century of research by anthropologists has established a rough correlation between an increasing brain size and advances in stone-tool technology. The kinds of tools described in the Nature article matched those made elsewhere by Homo sapiens. Says Eckhardt, “It seemed very unlikely that a human with a chimp-sized brain would have invented such tools independently and in total isolation.”