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New Hominid Species Unearthed
Jamais Cascio, 27 Oct 04

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophies..."

Archaeologists working on Flores Island, at the eastern tip of Java, have discovered the skeletal remains of a new hominid species -- a relative of Homo sapiens, but a different branch of the family tree. Two aspects make this story particularly compelling: the hominid, tentatively named Homo floresiensis, stood only three feet tall as an adult; and it died out in relatively recent times, only 12-13,000 years ago, when a nearby volcano killed off much of the island's life. The full report will appear in next week's Nature; detailed press accounts can be found at New Scientist, the BBC, and the Washington Post.

The evidence currently suggests that H. floresiensis is an offshoot of Homo erectus, a hominid species ancestral to Homo sapiens. It is most decidedly not modern human: the skull morphology is all wrong, and the multiple skeletons found from different layers of the cave site show that the dwarfism was a population-wide characteristic. The species appears to be the first example of a higher primate evolving via what biologists call the "island rule:" an isolated population, in an environment with limited resources but no real predators, will tend towards species dwarfism. The prehistoric dwarf elephant Stegodon is known to have inhabited Flores Island during the same period.
(more...)

But H. floresiensis was most notable in another way: it had a very small brain capacity -- around 380cc, close to the size of a modern chimp's brain -- but made sophisticated stone tools. This is probably the most important element of the discovery. The traditional paleoanthropology view has been that brain size more-or-less equates to sophistication of cognition. This discovery puts the weight behind the argument that brain structure, not size, is the telling characteristic, but then raises the question of what brain size is then good for. H. floresiensis has the potential to shake up not just the world of anthropology, but neuroscience as well.

From a WorldChanging perspective, this new species is a signal flare reminder that scientific research, even in the more obscure realms, is how we can tell the story of our world. Our planet, and our species, still hold many mysteries as yet undiscovered.

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Comments

Whew.

We were a bit overdue for some head-fucking, conciet-trampling science news.

Alfred North Whitehead:

"It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties."

David Brin:

"I find it truly stunning how many people can shrug off stuff like this, preferring instead a tiny, cramped cosmos just 6,000 years old, scheduled to end any-time-now in a scripted stage show."


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 27 Oct 04

That Whitehead quote rocks.

Another favorite is his quote about how the second hand nature of modern education holds the key to it's mediocrity.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 27 Oct 04

If I can indulge myself, here's the whole graf:

"Modern science has imposed upon humanity the necessity for wandering. Its progressive thought and its progressive technology make the transition through time, from generation
to generation, a true migration into uncharted seas of adventure. The very benefit of wandering is that it is dangerous and needs skill to avert evils. We must expect, therefore, that the future will disclose dangers. It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. The prosperous middle classes, who ruled the nineteenth century, placed an excessive value upon the placidity of existence. They refused to face the necessities for social reform imposed by the new industrial system,
and they are now refusing to face the necessities for intellectual reform imposed by the new knowledge. The middle class pessimism over the future of the world comes from a confusion between civilization and security. In the immediate future there will be less security than in the immediate past, less stability. It must be admitted that there is a degree of instability which is inconsistent with civilization. But, on the whole, the great ages have been unstable ages."

--Alfred North Whitehead,"Science and the Modern World," 1925.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 27 Oct 04

If modern human civiliation is able to continue for thousands and thousands of years from now, our species will branch out in multiple categories of people depending on the environment. In the future, if human civiliation is able to travel into space and eventually colonize other locations outside of Earth (for ie. the Moon, Mars, or other planets), the current human species will branch out even more.

Now lets look back in time. Scientists say that modern humans originated from Southern Africa several hundred thousands years ago. But where and how did these suppositly ancestors of ours come from. Did they evolve from primates or monkeys or from extrateristial huminoids that came to Earth millions and millions years ago.


Posted by: Little Homer on 29 Oct 04



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