A Southern Cross University researcher has begun the painstaking task of analysing hundreds of stone tools believed to have been used by the “hobbits” – a new species of miniature humans found on the Indonesian island of Flores.
Dr Carol Lentfer, an environmental archaeologist, was part of the international team of archaeologists, led by Associate Professor Mike Morwood of the University of New England, which discovered the remains of the previously unknown species in Liang Bua, a limestone cave on Flores.
The team discovered a near-complete skeleton of a 30-year old female, who died around 18,000 years ago, as well as remains of a number of other ‘little people’, named Homo floresiensis.
Dr Lentfer has brought back hundreds of stone tool and sediment samples taken from sites inside and outside the cave. She now has the job of determining what sort of environment the Homo floresiensis lived in, whether they made the tools and what they used them for.
“We have the tools that were directly associated with the bones. That includes choppers, grinders, blades and a series of stone flakes and points,” Dr Lentfer said.
“I will be analysing plant and animal residues found on the stone tools. Residues can include resins, fibres, blood and even DNA. Plant microfossils such as phytoliths (literally 'plant stones' formed when opaline silica is deposited in cells, and cellular spaces in growing plants) and fossilised starch granules, are also commonly found. Besides examining residues I will also be looking at the wear patterns and polishes on the tools.”
She said by examining the residues and use-wear patterns on the stone tools she would be able to determine how they were used, for example spearing animals, cutting flesh, processing bones, grinding ochres or working with wood and other plant material.
“This analysis will help to determine if the tools were used by Homo floresiensis or Homo sapiens sapiens (i.e. modern humans). But it is most likely that they were made and used by the same people who first occupied the cave about 100,000 years ago, because over this long (time) sequence, there is not much change in technology of the tools. Based on the present evidence the most likely candidate is Homo floresiensis.
“But it is early days and DNA analysis of residues on the tools might be able to tell us if the ‘hobbits’ co-existed with Homo sapiens. It might turn out that modern humans were killing the hobbits.”
The Homo floresiensis, who are known to have lived until 13,000 years ago and possibly up until as late as 500 years ago, are thought to have evolved from taller humans, Homo erectus, becoming dwarfed over hundreds of thousands of years through genetic isolation.
The discovery is the first new human species to be found since 1894 and is already sparking debate about where the species fits into human evolution.
Dr Lentfer said it had been an amazing and unexpected discovery. She will now spend the next three years analysing the tool samples as well as collecting new samples from the river terraces outside the cave.
“We take sediment samples down a continuous column so we can reconstruct the environment through time. We can find out if there were forests, grasses, and when there has been burning. We can get really fine detail about the vegetation and environmental change.
“What I do is find out what impact humans have had on landscapes and their use of resources in the environment, including plants and animals.”
She has been undertaking the work in conjunction with Dr Netty Polhaupessy, from the Geology and Research Development Centre in Java with a grant from the Pacific Biological Foundation. The research forms part of the overall project co-ordinated by Associate Professor Mike Morwood, entitled “Astride the Wallace Line: 1.5 million years of human evolution, dispersal, culture and environmental change in Indonesia”.
Dr Lentfer, who graduated with her PhD from SCU in September, was awarded one of two Chancellor’s Medals for Outstanding PhD Thesis, for her work titled “Plants People and Landscapes in Prehistoric Papua New Guinea: a compendium of Phytolith (and starch) analyses”.
Regarded as one of the top phytolith researchers in the world, Dr Lentfer is now an adjunct fellow at SCU and has also obtained a Post-Doctoral fellowship with the University of Queensland.