The Indonesian Island That Makes Mammals Smaller

August 11, 2019

Ever since the remains of “Homo Florensis”, an extinct species of unusually short humans, were discovered on Flores Island, in eastern Indonesia, scientists have been fascinated with this patch of land, which apparently has the power to somehow make mammals shorter and smaller.

It all began in 2004, when the remains of a human who would have been about 1.1 m in height were discovered at Liang Bua cave. Partial skeletons of nine other individuals were subsequently unearthed and analysis showed that they were part of a yet unknown species of the “Homo” genus named Homo Florensis.

It’s estimated that they lived on Flores Island roughly 190,000 to 50,000 years ago. With an average height of just 1.1 meters, they were shorter than modern pygmies which earned them the nickname of ‘real-life hobbits’. Scientists believed they were the ancestors of the pygmies currently living on Flores Island, which made perfect sense, only it turns out that the two have nothing in common. If anything, both species had been independently “shrunk” by the island itself.

In several of the villages around the cave in which the remains of Homo Florensis were found, the average adult is only 4.9-feet-tall (1.49 m). In the beginning, scientists assumed that they were descendants of the extinct “hobbits” of Flores Island, who at one point interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans, the DNA of which is now present in all non-African humans alive today.

The modern pygmies of Flores Island shared the short stature of Homo Florensis, but scientists needed irrefutable proof that they shared the same DNA.

In 2013, a scientific expedition to this fascinating Indonesian island asked permission from the head of Rampasasa Village, near Liang Bua cave, to collect saliva samples from the villagers in order to analyze their genome. The results were published last year and shocked many in the scientific community. It turns out that while the modern inhabitants shared a similar amount of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA as other humans in South-East Asia, they had no sign of Homo Florensis DNA.

“They kind of fit in where you’d probably expect them to fit in, in terms of ancestry, when you compare that group of people to other populations in South-East Asia, Oceania and so on,” University of Queensland geneticist Peter Visscher said.

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