An ancient legend on the Indonesian island of Flores tells of an elflike creature similar to the fictional hobbit. But a controversial 2003 archeological find not only suggests that there could be some truth behind the legend, but promises to rewrite a key chapter in the human evolutionary story. KUED premieres NOVA: Alien From Earth airing Tuesday, June 15 at 7:00 p.m.
Known for its strange fauna and flora, Indonesia may now have offered the world one of the strangest archeological discoveries. Dated at 18,000 years, the hobbit's skull was found deep in the sediment of Liang Bua Cave, a cave the size of a concert hall. The hobbit was an adult female no larger than a three-year-old. The discovery created a media sensation. The NOVA team, along with scientists and researchers, began to make sense of this archeological oddity, dubbed Homo floresiensis.
Stretching back as far as 95,000 years, archeologists found the bones of a dozen other hobbits deep in the cave, as well as stone tools, charcoal and the butchered remains of pygmy elephants, implying that these tiny cave dwellers had hunted and used fire.
But is the hobbit find an anomaly, a human whose small stature and unusual features are the result of disease? Or could its size result from the "island effect," the theory that large island creatures often evolve to be small, like the Flores pygmy elephant. Is the hobbit proof of an undiscovered branch of the human family tree?
The NOVA team follows each line of inquiry down some fascinating paths. With the help of a CAT scan, paleoanthropologist Dean Falk produces a cast of the hobbit's brain and then compares it to casts of pathologically diseased brains. Falk argues that the hobbit skull represents a healthy and unique specimen of ancient humanity.
At the Smithsonian Institution, anthropologist Matt Tocheri finds a resemblance between the distinctive wrist bones of the hobbit and African apes. Anthropologist Bill Jungers finds he can fit together bones from the hobbit with those of the most celebrated fossil in the human family tree, "Lucy," who lived three million years ago in Africa.
"To me, when I heard of this, I immediately said to myself, this is the most amazing discovery in any field of science in the last 10 years," says Jared Diamond, author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and noted evolutionary biologist.
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