In a hole in a ground there lived some hobbits -- lots of them, apparently.
A tiny hominid whose discovery in a cave on an Indonesian island unleashed one of the fiercest debates in anthropology has suddenly been joined by several other sets of dwarf-sized beings.
At least nine other wee individuals lived in the cave, where thousands of years ago they skillfully butchered meat and handled fire, according to new findings.
The initial find at Liang Bua cave, reported almost exactly a year ago, became known as the "Hobbit Hominid," after the pint-sized characters of J.R.R. Tolkien's stories.
Measuring just 1m or so high -- thus as tall as a chimpanzee -- and with a skull the size of a grapefruit, the strange creature lived around 18,000 years ago on the remote island of Flores.
The discoverers believed the Hobbit to be the smallest of the 10 species of Homo erectus, the primate that emerged from Africa about 2.5 million years ago and whose ultimate descendant is Homo sapiens, as anatomically modern man is called.
They honored him with the formal name of Homo floresiensis, "Man of Flores," and in so doing unleashed tribal warfare among anthropologists.
In polite, scholarly tones that masked ruthlessness worthy of soccer hooligans, many of them attacked the notion that the Hobbit could be a separate human species.
After all, it would mean that Homo sapiens, who has been around for 150,000 to 200,000 years, would have shared the planet with other hominids much more recently than anyone had thought.
It would mean that the Hobbits were still knocking around after key events traditionally considered as proof that Homo sapiens was master of the planet -- the extinction of the Neanderthals, the arrival of modern humans in Australia and the first agriculture, a landmark event that transformed humans from hunter-gatherers into settlers.
To such critics, the one-off find proved nothing -- the skeleton could be that of a dwarf, the result of a genetic flaw in a tribe of Homo erectus or a disease called microcephaly, characterized by an abnormally small brain and head.
Now, though, Liang Bua has yielded more specimens, which adds a mighty weight to Homo floresiensis' credentials.
The new fossils consist of the right elbow and two bones of the lower forearm of the first skeleton; the mandible of a second individual; and assorted other remains, including two tibiae, a femur, two radii, an ulna, a scapula, a vertebra and various toe and finger bones.
In all, bits and pieces from at least nine individuals have been found, and dating of the remains suggest some were alive as recently as 12,000 years ago.
All seem to have been the same size as the original Hobbit. In addition, the new bones show that these people, for all their short size, had relatively long arms and, unlike Homo sapiens, had no chin.
The finds thus prove that the first Hobbit "is not just an aberrant or pathological individual, but is representative of a long-term population that was present during the interval 95 to 74,000 to 12,000 years ago," the Australian-Indonesian team say.
But that's not all. Gently extracted from Liang Bua's floor were the remains of a dwarf elephant called a Stegodon, whose bones, marked by flints, showed that the hobbits were good at butchering animals.
There were also scarred bones and clusters of reddened, flame-cracked rocks, proof that the community was skillful at manipulating fire.
In a review of the study, Harvard University expert Daniel Lieberman said the new fossils backed the contention that the Hobbits were a previously undiscovered branch of the human family tree.
Still unclear, though, is where these tiny hominids came from.
One theory is that they evolved from Homo erectus by island dwarfing, a phenomenon that is well known in the animal kingdom.
Under this, a large species that arrives on an island where there is little food becomes progressively smaller in population numbers and in physical size in order to survive.
But this jibes with the discovery that the Hobbits were apparently good hunters and had mastered the means of keeping warm -- in other words, they had used human skills to buffer themselves against the pressures of natural selection.
"The finds from Liang Bua are not only astonishing, but also exciting because of the questions they raise," said Lieberman.
The study, lead-authored by Mike Morwood of the University of New England at Armidale, New South Wales, was published last Thursday in Nature, the British science journal.
In a news item on its Web site, Nature said Indonesia had refused to renew the researchers' access to the cave.
The country's anthropological establishment, which has close ties to the government, bitterly opposes the theory that the Hobbits were a separate species, it quoted them as saying.
"My guess is that we will not work at Liang Bua agin, this year or any other year," Morwood reportedly said.
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