Little People Cause Big Excitement

Little People Cause Big Excitement

Does Palau Island Discovery Challenge the Status of Homo floresiensis?

My youngest daughter’s all-star cheer team was recently invited to perform during half-time at an LA Breakers game. The LA Breakers are a professional dwarf basketball team made up of male and female players from 4’ to 4’ 9” in height. After the game, my daughter got to meet the team members, several of whom are TV and movie stars. The list of celebrities included Martin Klebba who had a role in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Needless to say this experience created quite a stir in our house later that evening as my daughter recounted all that happened and showed us the freshly autographed team picture of the Breakers.

A recent discovery of the fossilized remains of little people on the island of Palau also has created quite a stir among paleoanthropologists. A team headed by a scientist from South Africa unearthed a large number of remains of modern human dwarfs in two caves on raised limestone islets off the coast of the southern part of Palau.

These modern human specimens date between 940 and 2,900 years old. Evidence for human occupation on the island extends back to 3,000 to 4,500 years ago. There were no fauna or flora associated with the human remains, nor have any artifacts been recovered. This evidence suggests that these caves served as a graveyard, of sorts. Unfortunately, none of the skeletal elements are articulated (connected). The burial site shows evidence that wave activity repositioned and redeposited the remains within the caves.

The paleoanthropologists noted that many of the humans buried in the cave were smaller than contemporary pigmies. Using pelvic girdles and femur heads, the paleoanthropologists estimated the body mass of the females in the caves to be about 75 kilograms and about 100 kilograms for males. The research team focused their attention on some of the smaller individuals in the fossil assemblage, most notably a cranium embedded in limestone. This specimen has yet to be extracted from the site, so their analysis of the cranium was conducted in situ.

Although the research team observed that the facial features were distinctly those of modern humans, they also identified other features found in primitive hominids. The brain size of this individual was estimated at about 1,000 cubic centimeters, the low end of the brain size range of modern humans.

The researchers proposed that these remains represent a group of modern humans who made their way to the island of Palau and underwent insular dwarfism, rendering them small in stature. This process involves a microevolutionary reduction in the size of animals when isolated for a significant period of time, often on an island. In the face of limited resources and no predatory threat creatures respond by undergoing a dramatic reduction in size.

These findings on Palau are reminiscent of another fossil find reported in 2004, the recovery of small-bodied hominids on the Indonesian island of Flores. The Flores finds were interpreted as a new species, termed Homo floresiensis. Since that discovery, controversy has surrounded this interpretation with some paleoanthropologists arguing that these are the remains of microcephalic modern humans. (For a discussion of how these hominids fit into RTB’s human origins model, see the article I wrote recently for our free minimagazine Connections.) The researchers who discovered the Palau dwarfs are now weighing in on this issue. They argue that perhaps the Flores island hominids were actually modern humans that also experienced insular dwarfism. They noted that the primitive features they detected in the Palau island people suggest that the primitive features of the Flores island specimens were a consequence of the changes that stemmed from insular dwarfism.

While it appears that the Palau people are modern humans who experienced insular dwarfism, the extension of this explanation to the Flores island hominids appears unwarranted upon closer inspection.

  • The hominids from Flores island did not display any modern human features, which contrasts with the dwarfs recovered in the caves of Palau. This observation means that H. floresiensis were not likely insular dwarfs of modern humans.

  • The brain size of H. floresiensis was about 380 cubic centimeters, much smaller than that of the smallest brain of the Palau people, measuring about 1,000 cubic centimeters.

  • The tools associated with H. floresiensis belonged to the Acheulean technology, associated exclusively with Homo erectus.

  • The paleoanthropologists focused their analysis on the smallest members of the Palau fossil assemblage. There are dwarf remains larger than those recorded for H. floresiensis.

Even though the discovery of the Palau dwarfs has mixed things up a bit among paleoanthropologists, at the end of the day it appears as if the excitement is for naught, at least with respect to the status of H. floresiensis. This creature appears to be a hominid that has a strong kinship to the erectines.

The biological and behavioral differences between modern humans and H. floresiensis finds ready accommodation in the RTB model of human origins. This scientific theory of creation views the hominids as creatures made by God to possess some level of intellectual and emotional capacity. Still, according to the RTB view, these creatures lacked God’s image. The model predicts that the hominids should be biologically and behaviorally distinct from modern humans, and that appears to be the case for H. floresiensis.