Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The floresiensis mess

The debate over the status of Homo floresiensis, the possible species of Homo that survived until about 12,000 years ago that was discovered in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores, just won't go away. Two separate much-publicized studies that challenge the notion that floresiensisis is a distinct species emerged this week. First, Peter Obendorf, Charles Oxnard, and Ben Kefford argued in their study in Proc. Roy. Soc. B that the purported floresiensis skeletons were actually Homo sapiens who suffered from congenital hypothyroidism, or cretinism. The anthropologist John Hawks, for one, disagreed with this finding on his blog, arguing Obendorf et. al. got it badly wrong.

More recently, University of Witwatersrand paleoanthropologist Lee Berger and colleagues describe a new set of small-bodied human skeletons that were found in Palau, Micronesia. Berger et. al. conclude that their specimens are Homo sapiens who exhibit physiological dwarfism that regularly emerges in island contexts. They also suggest that the characteristics of the Flores specimens "may be best explained as correlates of small body size in an island adaptation, regardless of taxonomic affinity. Under any circumstances the Palauan sample supports at least the possibility that the Flores hominins are simply an island adapted population of H. sapiens, perhaps with some individuals expressing congenital abnormalities."

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