Quirks & Quarks

A new tiny hominin discovery gives the 'hobbit' a distant cousin

Discovered in the Philippines, this new human relative changes our picture of 'out of Africa'

Discovered in the Philippines, this new human relative changes our picture of 'out of Africa'

Callao Cave on Luzon Island of the Philippines, where the fossils of Homo luzonensis were discovered. (Callao Cave Archaeology Project/Associated Press)

Researchers excavating a cave on the island of Luzon in the Philippines have found remains of a previously unknown new species of human. Like Homo floresiensis, the "hobbit" discovered in Indonesia in 2003, this new species seems to have features that make our picture of the exodus of human species out of Africa much more complicated.

The remains of the creature, dubbed Homo luzonensis, include several teeth, a few hand and foot bones, and a section of leg bone. Dating of the bones and teeth suggest the remains of three individuals, one of whom lived at least 50,000 years ago, and the other who lived at least 67,000 years ago.

Reading the story in the bones

A complete reconstruction of the creature difficult because the remains are so incomplete. It was likely small, like Homo floresiensis. And according to Mathew Tocheri, Canada Research Chair in Human Origins at Lakehead University, the few bones that were recovered reveal an intriguing combination of features.

A researcher holds a skull of a Homo floresiensis in Indonesia. The new fossils of Homo luzonensis are much less complete - only a few bones and teeth, but the creature was likely also very small, and they might have been closely related species. (Puslitbang Arkenas/Associated Press)

It's teeth, though small, are quite similar to those of modern humans and more recent human relatives. The hand and foot bones, however, are more similar to more ancient diminutive forms only found in Africa like australopithecus - best known from the famous fossil "Lucy."

These bones have distinctive curves that anthropologists associate with adaptation to climbing.  This suggests a lifestyle we more commonly associate with modern apes, with extended time in the trees as well as on the ground.

Out of Africa

Until the discovery of these two diminutive species in Southeast Asia, we had a relatively simple picture of early hominim migration from Africa, and it seemed to amount to only one lineage leaving Africa prior to modern humans.

Fossil remains of Homo erectus, a large, robust species similar in form to modern humans, have been found in many places in Asia, dating back to between 1.5 and 2 million years ago.  This species was thought by many to have been the ancestor of Neandernals and Denisovans.

However the discovery of Homo floresiensis, and now Homo luzonensis could tell another story.  These two species may represent a quite different lineage that left Africa perhaps around two million years ago. If so, according to Tocheri, we may in the future find traces along the way of the long, slow migration that took them from the cradle of humanity to southeast Asia

A foot bone of Homo luzonensis in side view, showing the longitudinal curvature of the bone, is seen in this undated handout photo obtained by Reuters April 10, 2019. (Callao Cave Archaeology Project/Reuters)

The end of the story?

With only these few fossil specimens, it's difficult to know how long Homo luzonensis lived in the Philippines, and when they became extinct. But it is intriguing that they were there at about the same time as we think modern humans moved into Southeast Asia and not, as far as we know, after that.

The same seems to have been true of Homo floresiensis, which raises the question of whether the appearance of modern humans might have had something to do with the extinction of these other human species.

Nature Magazine video, 'New Species found in the Philippines'


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