Planet Earth

The Latest Flap Over Flores Man

By Zach ZorichMar 31, 2005 6:00 AM


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Last October Australian anthropologist Peter Brown made headlines when he announced the discovery of a new species of the genus Homo: a four-foot-tall hominin who lived on the remote Indonesian island of Flores 18,000 years ago. But soon after the TV lights went out, his find became mired in scientific controversy. And now, a top Indonesian scientist, Teuku Jacob, has taken charge of the skeletal remains, denying access to Brown and others. Jacob also challenged the discovery altogether, arguing that “Flores man” was merely a pygmy with a rare genetic disorder that affected the size and shape of his skull.

Brown worked on the joint Australian-Indonesian team that found the nearly complete skeleton in Liang Bua cave in September 2003. The bones, dubbed LB1, were stored at the Indonesian Center for Archaeology in Jakarta, but shortly after Brown’s announcement they were transferred to Jacob’s laboratory in another part of the country. The move, Jacob says, was standard procedure, part of an agreement that allows him to examine all bones uncovered in archaeological digs.

Brown has demanded that the bones—LB1 and parts of six other individuals—be returned, fearing Jacob will try to control access to them. So far only LB1’s skull, pelvis, and leg bones have undergone rigorous study. But Jacob says he will send back the remains as soon as he finishes remeasuring, scanning, and taking DNA samples, work he originally predicted would be completed by the end of 2004 and later by the end of January.

Jacob believes LB1 was a pygmy Homo sapiens afflicted with microcephaly, a genetic disorder that causes small, abnormally shaped skulls. When he remeasured Flores man, he says, he determined that he was a foot taller and had a skull (inset) 50 cubic centimeters larger than Brown had found. He also discovered groups of pygmies living in isolated villages in the densely forested region near the Liang Bua cave. Jacob claims they are direct descendants of Flores man.

Brown rejects Jacob’s findings. He says that LB1 evolved from an isolated Homo erectus group who developed smaller bodies to cope with the island’s limited resources. “There is a combination of anatomical features in the skeleton that simply aren’t found in any form of Homo sapiens.”

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