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Hominins lived on Flores for nearly 1 million years before the “hobbit”

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hobbit flores stone tools million yearsPredecessors of the controversial "hobbit" (Homo floresiensis) discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores might have had a longer history there than researchers previously thought.

Although early hominins were presumed to be living on Flores about 800,000 years ago—as evidenced by the discovery of stone tools dated to that time—new finds and analysis push their arrival back another 200,000 years, according to a study in the March 18 issue of Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group). If hominins were present on the island for one million years, as the new findings suggest, that would extend the window of time in which a small primitive human, such as H. floresiensis, which lived about 18,000 years ago, could have evolved. 

The group, led by Adam Brumm of the Centre for Archaeological Science at the University of Wollongong in Australia, found some 45 stone artifacts, which the team was able to describe and date. The tools were likely made by early ancient hominin ancestors on the island;  it remains unknown if the users of these tools were directly related to H. floresiensis.

Scientists had proposed that the arrival of hominins on Flores precipitated the vanishing of giant tortoise (Geochelone) and pygmy elephant species (Stegodon sondaari) from the area about 800,000 years ago. But an earlier arrival of these individuals now raises doubts about such a direct causation. "It now seems that this extirpation or possible extinction event…were the result of natural processes rather than the arrival of hominins," noted the researchers, who proposed that climate change, volcanoes or other force might have killed off these animals.

Tracing stone tool clues to discover the earliest date of hominins’ arrival on the island, however, might prove to be difficult, the researchers noted.  The sediment at the popular Soa Basin site, which has long been exploited for ancient evidence, appears be too recently deposited to yield artifacts much older than those described in the study. Therefore, concluded the researchers, new clues should "be sought in other parts of the island."

Image of excavation site courtesy of Adam Brumm


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  1. 1. hotblack 7:31 pm 03/17/2010

    I dunno, jezus didn’t talk about no hobbit man in the bible.

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  2. 2. Pugsley 8:11 pm 03/17/2010

    Nor did Jesus talk about archeaologists, nor even fundies. But this is kinda cool ….. I wish they had written more about what the "hominims" were like.

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  3. 3. mpainesyd 8:25 pm 03/17/2010

    The Australasian Tekktite Event took place in this region 800,000 years ago. It is a candidate for the reported extinctions.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 8:58 pm 03/17/2010

    I didn’t see any mention of evidence indicating the continuous habitation of Flores by hominims for any significant portion of the last 1M yrs.

    As I understand, there is strong evidence in the human genome of a global human population bottleneck about 70K yrs ago that has been attributed to the Mt. Toba erruption in the region. That bottleneck is considered to have reduced the global human population from perhaps 1M to around 10K.

    It seems unlikely that a viable population of hominins could have survived this regional event on the tiny island of Flores.

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  5. 5. new illuminati 11:08 pm 03/17/2010

    People seem to be missing the dent this makes in many accepted ‘out of Africa’ timelines.

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  6. 6. PotatoChip 11:34 pm 03/17/2010

    @new illuminati:

    How does this make a dent in the Out of Africa timelines?

    My understanding is that H. Erectus was present in eastern Asia some 1,000,000 years ago (having come out of Africa).

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  7. 7. mbrysonb 12:02 am 03/18/2010

    I don’t see how this affects ‘out of Africa’ hypotheses. Modern humans can still be recent arrivals from Africa– the presence of older hominins outside Africa isn’t news at all.

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  8. 8. PotatoChip 12:06 am 03/18/2010

    Thanks mbrysonb. You said it better than I did. Modern humans came out of Africa some time around 100,000 years ago. Previous waves of earlier humans came out of Africa at much earlier times. Nothing here contradicts any of that.

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  9. 9. JamesDavis 7:46 am 03/18/2010

    Since these human like animals made about 1% progress, or less, in the last 3 hundred million years, what explains the rapid increase in intelligence and abilities of us human like animals in the last hundred years or so? Why can’t our scientists explain this misterous event in our history? And why didn’t these human like animals make more progress than they did? You can’t blame it on brain size because they have already proved that brain size have nothing to do with it, and those human like animals ate more protein rich meats than we do. Can someone, other than a layman give me an educated guess, or speculation, on that mysterous happening?

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  10. 10. jtdwyer 9:33 am 03/18/2010

    JamesDavis – I think that the principal distinction between modern humans and our more primitive hominins is our development of languages, to symbolically represent and communicate complex abstract concepts.

    The development of writing was a further major advance, allowing the precise transmission of abstract concepts beyond an individual’s lifetime. The accumulated information contained in humanity’s written knowledge base and the ability of individuals to use that information is the principal achievement of our species, and what distinguishes us from more primitive creatures.

    My area of expertise is information systems analysis. Others may consider me a layman, but what of it?

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  11. 11. PotatoChip 10:36 am 03/18/2010

    JamesDavis, here are some difficulties with your question:

    "1% progress" – How is this measured? What is the definition of "progress"?

    "3 hundred million years" – Hominin inhabitants of Indonesia were not there for 3 hundred million years. They were probably there for about one million years or so.

    "rapid increase in intelligence and abilities of us human like animals in the last hundred years or so" – There has been no increase in intelligence at all in humans in the last hundred years or so. Also, define "abilities".

    Before your question can be taken seriously (and especially since you want a response from someone who isn’t a layman), you would need to resolve these issues.

    In effect, you haven’t asked a coherent question and you haven’t identified anything that could be called mysterious.

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  12. 12. SteveinOG 11:01 am 03/18/2010

    JamesDavis – I’m not an archeologist either, but I might add that the time scales you have mentioned are wildly out of whack. Hominins appear to have diverged from other apes by roughly 4-5 million (possibly earlier), not 3 hundred million years ago. Modern humans were present in Africa by 100 thousand, not one hundred years ago.

    Also, your idea of "progress" is not a direction that evolution necessarily follows. Animals can survive and successfully reproduce by passing down traits that have nothing to do with your idea of "progress".

    Ants, fig trees, rats, etc. have made just as much "progress" in the only way that counts: survival and reproduction. Our abilities to predict possible future events from past experience, to communicate with others, etc. are made possible by a whole series of other adaptations (such as up-right posture, which frees the hands, cools the body and brain, etc.). These earlier adaptations have no predetermined direction. They are just mutations that do no harm, plus they possibly aid survival in the animal’s ecological niche.

    Hominins have followed a lonely path, which, in very recent geological time, has rewarded mutations for the survival tactic of being smarter than other animals with which they compete.

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  13. 13. JamesDavis 1:48 pm 03/18/2010

    Okay, "jtdwyer", I’ll go along with that to a point, but we’ve had a spoken and writen language for thousands of years and we have been able to read written languages for thousands of years, that still doesn’t explain the rapid advancement, and I do mean rapid, in knowledge and abilities in the last hundred years. Since scientists haven’t been able to explain this incredable event in history, is that why you overlooked that part of the comment?

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 1:55 pm 03/18/2010

    SteveinOG – Keep in mind that individual humans have changed very little in the past 100,000 years. The exponential increase in the technological advancements of our civilization over the past few hundred years is almost entirely the product of our exponentially increasing persistent knowledge base.

    Unfortunately, we may soon demonstrate that there has been no evolutionary adaptations to account for this recent incredible ‘progress’, as environmental conditions may return us back to the stone age.

    Without the ability to draw from the vast reservoir of knowledge accumulated by our predecessors, humanity will lose most of our current amazing capabilities.

    Certainly fundamental inherited characteristics give us the ability to develop symbolic representations of abstract concepts, but it is our ability to access an accumulated knowledge base that gives us our greatest abilities.

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  15. 15. JamesDavis 2:03 pm 03/18/2010

    SteveinOG and PotatoChip: You two ranted on there a whole hell of a lot and didn’t say a damn thing of value. If you didn’t know the answer, you should’ve just kept your mouth shut. Nor do I feel the need to give you a detailed expalination of my comment or a definition of the words I use. If you do not know what I’m talking about or you need an exact date on a event before you can comment on it then you need to find yourselves some more edge-u-ma-cation.

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  16. 16. jtdwyer 2:12 pm 03/18/2010

    JamesDavis – You’re right about the spoken language, which is inherently learned, but reading and writing must be taught.

    Until the mass production of the written word became widely available a few hundred years ago, the world’s knowledge base was contained in a few handmade copies of specific texts, available to only a few.

    With the advent of public education (the brain pares down any unused language processing capabilities around 5 year of age), which has really only been widely implemented in the past 100-150 years, the world’s knowledge base has dramatically been increased. Each technological advancement has increased each individual’s ability to access the increasing accumulation of knowledge and information.

    This is the process that produced the recent incredible event increasing humanity’s abilities. I don’t know if scientists can explain it, but a reasonable person can.

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  17. 17. JamesDavis 2:36 pm 03/18/2010

    jtdwyer: The information in your comments, I already knew, and I am glad that you know that. You must watch a lot of the History and Science channesl like I do. I would still like to see, and read, some scientists findings on the matter…and I would like for those findings not to be religious in nature.

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  18. 18. jtdwyer 2:53 pm 03/18/2010

    JamesDavis – That’s fine, but you may or may not find any ‘scientific’ studies of the subject. I did not produce any new research or scientific references. However my analysis, based on widely available general information, was original.

    While you already knew the information I presented, you must not have been aware of the analysis required to produce the unproven but almost inarguable original answer to your line of questioning – otherwise you would not have had to ask.

    While you may find better information, you may never find a more complete analysis. I hope I didn’t waste my time: perhaps someone else will benefit.

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  19. 19. PotatoChip 2:57 pm 03/18/2010

    JamesDavis – What mysteries? If you take any given example of a technological advancement, is there really anything unexplained about what led up to it?

    In 1850, how long did it take for two people living in different cities to correspond with each other? How long did it take in 1900? How long in 1950? Once trains existed, how much faster could materials be moved from one location to another. Same with ocean liners. Could general relativity have been discovered much before Einstein? Probably not, since the math wasn’t advanced enough. Same with quantum mechanics. These advancements in physics led to lots of new technologies.

    What examples do you have that represent mysteries?

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  20. 20. SteveinOG 3:41 pm 03/18/2010

    jtdwyer: I don’t disagree.

    James Davis: No reason to get bent. I don’t think I was ranting by any definition. If only your original post was as clearly written as your last one (which has a certain rant-like character itself.)

    Take a moment to re-read your original post. Surely you can see why people misinterpret what you are asking about.

    Some people have suggested that the nearly exponential expansion of our knowledge and technology is the result not of evolution, but of the
    "next stage": social evolution. Humans no longer need to complete against animals for survival. Instead, social groups, or polities, are competing against each other for advantage (and sometimes survival). Witness the rapid technological advances that war brings about. Individuals, corporations, nations complete with each other for fortune, fame and power. But the principles of evolution still apply to this new, much faster, game.

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  21. 21. CorkyB 10:14 am 03/19/2010

    It seems the Dmanisi materials of 1,800,000 ybp – and its variability, indicates premoderns might have been migrating out of Africa as pre-erectus hominins. No reason they weren’t heading south-east at the same time, maintaining a tropical environment. At a territorial expansion rate of a few miles per generation they had pleanty of time to reach their Flores launching point.

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  22. 22. jtdwyer 4:21 pm 03/26/2010

    CorkyB – That’s an interesting point. I wonder if there is any fossil evidence of the regional migration of any species of monkey?

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  23. 23. jtdwyer 4:10 pm 06/23/2010

    Katherine Harmon – How could a viable population of hominins, presumedly geographically restricted to the are of current Indonesia, have persisted through the supervolcano eruption at nearby Mt. Toba about 75kya that presumedly diminished the global modern human population by 90%?

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