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Micronesian Fossil Pygmies Discovered

Posted by: Loren Coleman on March 10th, 2008

Breaking news out of Micronesia appears to confirm both the notion that Homo floresiensis were “normal” and that “little people” tales are worthy of pursuing for more fossil evidence.

Since the reporting of the so-called “hobbit” fossil from the island of Flores in Indonesia, debate has raged as to whether these remains are of modern humans (Homo sapiens), reduced, for some reason, in stature, or whether they represent a new species, Homo floresiensis.

Reporting in this week’s PLoS ONE in a study funded by the National Geographic Society Mission Programs, Lee Berger and colleagues from the University of the Witwatersrand, Rutgers University and Duke University, describe the fossils of small-bodied humans from the Micronesian island of Palau. These people inhabited the island between 1400 and 3000 years ago and share some – although not all – features with the H. floresiensis specimens.

Palau is situated in the Western Caroline Islands and consists of a main island of Babeldaob, with hundreds of smaller rock islands to the south west, colloquially known as the ‘‘rock islands.” These rock islands contain caves and rock shelters, in many of which, fossilized and subfossilized human remains have been found. The specimens described by Berger and colleagues came from two such caves, Ucheliungs and Omedokel, which appear to have been used as burial sites.

In both caves, they found skeletons of individuals who would have been small even relative to other such populations and are approximately the size of H. floresiensis or small members of the genus Australopithecus. These fossils were radiocarbon dated to between 1410 and 2890 years ago. The entrance to Omedokel cave also contained the remains of larger individuals dated to between 940 and 1080 years ago.

These two caves have provided and will continue to provide a wealth of specimens, which will need more intensive study. However, preliminary analysis of more than a dozen individuals including a male who would have weighed around 43 kg and a female of 29 kg, show that these small-bodied people had many craniofacial features considered unique to H. sapiens. These include: a distinct maxillary canine fossa, a clearly delimited mandibular mental trigone (in most specimens), moderate bossing of the frontal and parietal squama, a lateral prominence on the temporal mastoid process, reduced temporal juxtamastoid eminences and an en maison cranial vault profile with the greatest interparietal breadth high on the vault. Thus, these individuals are likely to be from a human population who acquired reduced stature, for some reason.

It is well established that populations living on isolated islands often consist of individuals of smaller stature than their mainland cousins – a phenomenon known as island dwarfism. This is true not just for humans but for many animals including extinct mammoths and elephants from islands off Siberia, California and even in the Mediterranean. Alternatively, the island may have been colonized by a few small individuals, between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago who, through extensive inbreeding, and other environmental drivers, produced a small-bodied population, which continued to inhabit Palau until at least 1400 years ago.

As well as having characteristics of H. sapiens, the Palau fossils also have features seen in H. floresiensis, such as their small bodies and faces, pronounced supraorbital tori, non-projecting chins, relative megadontia, expansion of the occlusal surface of the premolars, rotation of teeth within the maxilla and mandible, and dental agenesis. Berger and colleagues do not infer from these features any direct relationship between the peoples of Palau and Flores; however, these observations do suggest that at least some of the features which have been taken as evidence that the Flores individuals are members of a separate species, may be a common adaptation in humans of reduced stature.

Detailed analysis of the Palau specimens is unlikely to settle arguments over the status of H. floresiensis as there are features of Flores man, such as small brain size, not found in the people of Palau. Nevertheless, they do suggest that at least some of the unusual features seen in Flores are a result of environment rather than ancestral heritage. Above all, the skeletons from Palau should greatly increase our understanding of the process of island dwarfism in human populations and of the ancient colonizations of Oceania.

Citation: Berger LR, Churchill SE, De Klerk B, Quinn RL (2008) “Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia.” PLoS ONE 3(3): e1780. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001780.

Source: Public Library of Science

Thanks to Michel Raynal.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


9 Responses to “Micronesian Fossil Pygmies Discovered”

  1. browff responds:

    This is just so exciting. 1400 years ago there was intelligent civilization in the western societies…I can’t wait for this to develop.

  2. sschaper responds:

    Very interesting!

    Of course the grant money lies with claiming that the hobbits are a different species, so there is a powerful motivation to make that claim.

    Personally, I find them every bit as interesting, and ‘hobbity’ if they are of the modern human race, but miniaturized, as we see with pituitary dwarfs (who have the features of the Floresians, including small brain). Little people were real, and not just story. Cool!

    Not sure why they brought in the australopithicines, which we now know where simply a type of knuckle-walking chimpanzee. The similarities just aren’t there, at least not more than how a modern great ape resembles any of us.

  3. Maine Crypto responds:

    I was not aware of the extent of island dwarfism in humans. Thanks for the interesting read.

  4. jayman responds:

    I’ll be very interested in seeing a photo of a skull of one of these individuals. I agree that small size alone does not make a species. Much of the technical jargon above is unintelligible to a non-specialist. I did note that brow ridges and chins are mentioned; the defining things there are not presence or absence, but that they have a characteristic shape in H. sapiens. It sounds like these individuals have larger brains than the “Hobbits” and there was no mention of wrist bones.

  5. sschaper responds:

    As to the wrist bones, I -have- read that those varieties of dwarfism in humans that produce proportioned dwarfs, do have that same feature in the wrist bones. There were no pictures in that article, however.

    Were feet and fingers preserved?

    It was the lack of feet and fingers that allowed Johanson to promote Lucy as a hominid for so long, when other Afar skeletons were found with those preserved, the Afar apes had to be reclassified, and were not the makers of the Laetoli footprints. Which is interesting for cryptozoology, for that means that an as yet undiscovered fully bipedal primate made the Laetoli footprints.

  6. sschaper responds:

    So, are these humans, or are these Orang Pendek? If there are no feet and hands, we may not know yet.

  7. shiva_dan responds:

    These sound like clear H. sapiens sapiens to me, and would be around the size (maybe a little smaller?) of the smallest “pygmy” ethnic groups living today.

    If they were found among other, larger (even if smaller than present day human-average) human skeletons, i would suggest that either:

    a) there was a particular genetic type of dwarfism prevalent in the population

    or

    b) there was some sort of caste system involving people of different groups living alongside each other and not interbreeding – maybe a smaller ethnic group who were enslaved, or even a poorer caste who were smaller because they got less nutrition or something…

    There are a lot of different types of dwarfism, some of which (including the commonest) are easily recognisable because they result in deformed, short/thick limbs relative to a near normal sized head and torso (eg. the actors Warwick Davis and Peter Dinklage). Others result in close-to-normal proportions, including a smaller head, one or more of which have been suggested explanations for the Flores skeletons – however, such people still have a modern Homo sapiens *shape* to their brain case, while H. floresiensis has a very different shape showing clear adaptations to small body size (enlargement of certain areas relative to others to maximise the “efficiency” of fitting brainpower into a small space).

    Thus, i’m sure that H. floresiensis is a different species from modern humans, and the most plausible candidate for cryptids like the Orang Pendek, but these Palau skeletons sound more modern sapiens-like. If there were non-sapiens hominids that far out in the Pacific, then i think the only way they could have got there is if modern humans took them (as pets? slaves?)… which seems a lot less likely than some dwarfed modern humans.

  8. shiva_dan responds:

    Also, i don’t know where you got the information that australopithecines were “simply a type of knuckle-walking chimpanzee”, since i can’t find any evidence that they were knuckle-walkers, or any serious scientist suggesting that the Laetoli footprints were not left by the same animal whose jawbones were found there, which has been assigned to Australopithecus afarensis.

    While australopithecines were not the direct ancestors of modern humans, they were definitely closer to modern humans than to chimps, and the split between chimps and hominids (including australopithecines) occured at least 3 million years before the Homo/Australopithecus split.

    See the Wikipedia article on A. afarensis for studies using computer modelling to show that a. afarensis would have been able to walk bipedally much more efficiently than it could walk like a chimp…

  9. nick_beyondthetree responds:

    Very interesting indeed. As everyone seems to agree, the evidence provided does point to these guys being homo sapiens of reduced stature, rather than any direct relations of H. florensiensis.

    In many ways that makes the whole thing even more fascinating due to the implications concerning the peopling of the Pacific.

    Judging from the weight estimates, these people would have been noticably smaller than existing “pygmy” populations, which again raises questions concerning their origins and, perhaps more importantly, how long they had been living there. Unless they were already small when they began to migrate there, one would assume that the population would have had to be around for longer than 3000 years to acquire such a distinct environmental adaptation. Of course, maybe this could be evidence of how we can acquire adaptations over a shorter period than previously thought.

    Can’t wait to hear more about this.

    Thanks Loren.



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