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University Relations

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Aug. 21, 2006
Contact: Brandis Griffith, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

Researchers: Remains found in Indonesia do not represent new human species

LB1 in three different views to illustrate facial asymmetry. A is the actual specimen, B is the Right side doubled at the midline and mirrored, and C is the left side doubled and mirrored. Differences in left and right side facial architectures are apparent, and illustrate growth abnormalities of LB1.

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor is part of an international research team that has dispelled claims that skeletal remains found in Indonesia represent a new human species.

The peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is publishing a paper on the team’s findings in this week’s edition. David Frayer, KU professor of anthropology, is one of two Americans involved in the research.

“The individual is a dwarf, a pathological member of our own species, rather than a new species,” Frayer said.

In 2004, an Australian and Indonesian team of paleoanthropologists uncovered the skeletal remains of an individual about 3 feet tall, with a skull the size of a grapefruit, on the island of Flores, Indonesia. The scientists thought the remains represented a new human species because the island was isolated and the individual was so short and had such a small a brain. The individual’s remains, found in the Liang Bua Cave, were called LB1 and identified as Homo floresiensis.

But Frayer and his eight colleagues argue that this person is a relative of the pygmy population on the island now. They think it had a type of microcephaly, a brain disorder associated with a small brain or skull and sometimes a shorter stature.

Their argument disputes the new-species claim on several pieces of evidence, including geography and the asymmetry in the face and cranium.

In order for the new species to arise, the island must have been isolated, which it was not, according to Frayer and his co-authors, one of whom is a geologist in China.

A publication from five years ago documents invasions of elephants to the island of Flores on two separate occasions.

“If the elephants can get there, humans can, too,” Frayer said. “So the island was not isolated from the outside world and evolutionary factors leading to island dwarfism were not in operation.”

Furthermore, the group contends that except for the small size of the skull, none of its cranial features lie outside the norm for modern humans from the region, except various signs of evidence for pathological abnormalities.

One sign of abnormality is the asymmetry shown in the face and cranium. To document this, Frayer spliced together two left or two right sides of the face. For some dimensions, one side is larger by almost 40 percent than the opposite. Frayer notes that animals tend to be symmetrical and when they deviate from this it is an indication of a growth abnormality or trauma.

Because pygmy males are less than five feet tall and females under four and a half feet tall, the team thinks this individual, at three feet, is a dwarfed pygmy. Dwarfs are often disproportioned with large trunks and heads but shorter arms and legs. Researchers say other skeletal defects below the neck support that argument.

“On the outside of the femur bone is the cortical bone. This one was very thin, as if someone was not using his or her leg in a normal way,” Frayer said. “Where the muscles attach on the bones, these also were not as developed as they would be in an active individual,” suggesting some sort of disability.

The authors conclude that the “LB1 individual exhibits a combination of characters that are not primitive but instead regional, not unique but found in other modern human populations and not derived but strikingly disordered developmentally. They claim evidence for a new species is absent.

Frayer co-wrote the paper “Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities.” Robert Eckhardt of Pennsylvania State University served as the lead author with assistance from the following researchers: T. Jacob and E. Indriati, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia; R.P. Soejono, National Archaeological Research Center, Indonesia; K. Hsü, National Institute of Earth Sciences, Beijing, China; A. Thorne, Australian National University, Canberra; and M. Henneberg, University of Adelaide, Australia.


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