In 2013, anthropologists discovered a new species of ancient humans they are calling Homo naledi. Bones were found in the Dinaledi Chamber of the Rising Star Cave system in South Africa during an expedition led by explorer Lee Berger. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that the more than 1,550 bone specimens were identified as the new species, adding up to about 15 Homo naledi individuals. Now, another new species has been found, further exciting paleontologists and scientists, and changing perceptions on human evolution.
The Homo luzonensis
The discovery of the fossils was made in Callao Cave on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. Aside from the fact that a new species has been discovered, scientists are baffled by the fact that ancient humans somehow made it onto islands when it was thought they didn’t have seafaring skills at that stage. Researchers had first realized this possibility when Homo floresiensis fossils were found in 2004, also on an island.
The researchers found 13 bones from the Callao Cave that date back to about 67,000 years ago. The bones come from at least three separate individuals and were discovered in the sediment of the cave. They have been attributed as the new species of human: Homo luzonensis.
Besides the location of the fossils, the finding is also interesting due to the size of the remains, which suggest the people to whom the bones belonged were short of stature, much like Homo floresiensis. Professor Philip Piper from the Australian National University said the teeth were really small and that “[t]he size of the teeth generally – though not always – reflect the overall body-size of a mammal, so we think Homo luzonensis was probably relatively small too.”
The Homo floresiensis, whose remains were discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia, are sometimes referred to as “hobbits” or “dwarves” because of their small stature, and this new humanoid discovery has some of the same characteristics.
Many researchers theorize that ancient humans didn’t have the skills to build boats and cross seas, so how did these species manage to get to islands? Some suggest it was purely by accident, that perhaps a storm caught people living along the coast by surprise and swept them out to sea, depositing them on an island.
This could explain how populations on neighboring islands could end up becoming genetically isolated for long enough to evolve into a new species. The features on the remains shows a mix of both modern and ancient human aspects. The teeth, for example, look like those of modern humans while the hands and feet match more closely with the Australopithecines who last lived on the earth some two million years ago in Africa – including Lucy, the small female specimen discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia.
The two most recently discovered humanoid species, found on separate Southeast Asian islands, with a mix of features, have raised many questions. How did they get there? Were they more advanced than researchers thought, or were they victims of accidents that tossed them along the waves to their new island homes? Were the ancient humans on Flores and Luzon related somehow? Or, are they separate species that succumbed to island dwarfism? Although we don’t know yet, new studies and the likelihood of new discoveries may soon be able to provide the answers.