NOVA scienceNOW : 6 – Little people of flores


ROBERT KRULWICH: You’re not going to believe
this, and I wouldn’t blame you, ’cause if I told you this story that…”once upon a
time, on a little island, somewhere way off in the sea, there lived a race of teeny people
not known to science. They lived with elephants the size of ponies. They hunted dragons that
spat poisonous saliva laced with botulism and anthrax…” You’d say, “Come on.” But here’s the thing. An international team
of paleoanthropologists think that this story may be true, and tonight we’re going to show
you evidence that suggests that these little people may have existed on our planet for
tens of thousands years. And, even more intriguing, there’s the outside chance, they may still
be around. Midway between Asia and Australia, here in
Indonesia, lies the island of Flores. For centuries the people who lived here told tales
of little, hairy people. KERRY GRANT (University of New England, Australia):
Well, they talk about being scared of three things: one is elephants, one is tigers, and
one is the little people of the forest. RICHARD ROBERTS (University of Wollongong):
Small people, maybe a meter tall, hairy, with sloping foreheads, thick eyebrow ridges and
no chin…and they used to come up to the village. They used to raid their crops, until,
one day, they stole a baby. And that was it. The villagers decided to chase them out of
their cave, and that was the last they saw of what they called the Ebu Gogo which is
translated as “the grandmother who eats everything.” ROBERT KRULWICH: Ebu Gogo: learned people,
scholars, dismissed these tales as folklore. But then a team of Australian archeologists
digging in this cave, Liang Bua, it’s called, discovered something simply astounding. At
first, they thought it was a child. MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD (University of New England):
They thought it was a young child because the skeleton was very, very small. The Individual
was about a meter tall. ROBERT KRULWICH: About the size of a modern
three year old. But then they looked more closely at the skull. The lines on top here
would be different if it was a child’s skull, further apart. And the teeth…This was no
child. MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: It’s, in fact, an adult.
The wear and tear on the teeth shows that this individual was an adult, probably aged
about 30. It was a female. We already knew she was very, very small, so then we knew
we had something quite unusual. ROBERT KRULWICH: Unusual is an understatement.
Jared Diamond is a scientist and author. JARED DIAMOND: To me, when I heard of this,
I immediately said to myself, “This is the most amazing discovery in any field of science
in at least the last 10 years.” ROBERT KRULWICH: That big? JARED DIAMOND: Yeah. ROBERT KRULWICH: Why? JARED DIAMOND: Why? Because it’s the most
drastically different human that existed in the last million years. ROBERT KRULWICH: Just to give you a taste
for this, I am about six feet tall. Now here, this is what a full-grown pygmy looks like,
a 24 year old adult pygmy. Let’s check it out…about four and a half feet tall. And
here is Homo floresiensis. Let’s check this…a little over three feet tall. That’s about
half my size. MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: It’s the smallest human
species ever identified anywhere in the world from any time. ROBERT KRULWICH: “Wait a second,” said this
well-respected Indonesian anthropologist. Teuko Jacob says, “I think she’s one of us,
our species, but with a rare disease.” TEUKO JACOB (Gadjah Mada University): Therefore
there’s a small brain, microencephaly. ROBERT KRULWICH: Microencephaly can severely
retard growth in modern people. So she’s one of us with a growth disease? TEUKO JACOB: I’m sure about it. ROBERT KRULWICH: “Well, you’re wrong,” said
the Australian team. RICHARD ROBERTS: There’s no chance at all
that it’s a pathologically deformed individual of our species. RALPH HOLLOWAY: Welcome to paleoanthropology. ROBERT KRULWICH: So, since the debate here
is highly technical, I visited Ralph Holloway, one of the world’s preeminent ancient skull
experts. Less than this? RALPH HOLLOWAY: Less than many chimpanzees. ROBERT KRULWICH: And since he’s got a cast
of the lady’s skull, I asked him, “Does it look like our species? Like Homo sapiens?
This is a human being. Are these new creatures that you’ve seen…do they look like this?
Or are they…” RALPH HOLLOWAY: No. ROBERT KRULWICH: No. They’re different in
some fundamental way? RALPH HOLLOWAY: Absolutely. ROBERT KRULWICH: Ralph has examined this cast
of her brain cavity, and it’s not like ours, he says. RALPH HOLLOWAY: It’s low. It’s broad. ROBERT KRULWICH: You’re sure of this. RALPH HOLLOWAY: Absolutely. ROBERT KRULWICH: So what we may have here
is a brand new flavor of human. But if we do, how’d this creature get so small? The Australians believe that Homo floresiensis
descends, as we do, from the original, earlier human, Homo erectus, who came out of Africa
and spread to Europe and Asia. But as best scientists can tell, Homo erectus probably
wasn’t advanced enough to build boats. So how’d they get to the island? Jared theorizes that early humans reached
Flores by a land bridge. JARED DIAMOND: All this was going on during
the Ice Ages, when, around the world, a lot of water was locked up in glaciers so sea
level was low. ROBERT KRULWICH: So what today is water, then
was land. You could have walked there conceivably? JARED DIAMOND: No, you couldn’t walk there,
but the water gaps were narrower. ROBERT KRULWICH: Those gaps were so narrow
it didn’t take much to swim or float across. Other creatures did. JARED DIAMOND: Elephants did it. Monkeys did
it. If monkeys could do it, why couldn’t these dumb humans do it? ROBERT KRULWICH: But after they got there,
he says, the Ice Age ended. Glaciers melted, the ocean rose, and these early humans were
stranded. And this may explain why they got so small. RICHARD ROBERTS: They get small on an island
where there are no major predators and where there are not that many nutrients, so you
really don’t want to be eating any more than you need to if you want to survive. So for
reasons for avoiding starvation, it’s more efficient to keep small. ROBERT KRULWICH: So you’re not surprised then
that this group of human-types could become very small? JARED DIAMOND: There’re lots of big animals
that arrive on small islands and then, over evolutionary time, they shrink on…shrink
in size. ROBERT KRULWICH: There are islands where instead
of hippos there are pigmy hippos; instead of buffalo, there are pigmy buffalo; instead
of elephants, there are elephants one-eighth normal scale. So maybe people landed on Flores,
and they got smaller, tooóone half our size. The amazing thing, though, is their brains
were a third our size. RALPH HOLLOWAY: Small, small. That’s under
chimpanzee. And here it is associated with supposedly sophisticated stone tools. What
the hell have they found? KERRY GRANT: The evidence is showing us that
something with such a little brain may have been more capable of doing a lot more things
than we originally thought. ROBERT KRULWICH: The Australians say they
found, at the cave site, traces of campfire, so the little people may have been cooking
with fire. They found stone tools nearby that may or may not belong to them but they look
pretty sophisticated. And remember, these people hunted and ate
dwarf elephants, so… Here’s one getting up. Check out the sharp tusks. And look at
this one’s tusks. And, say the paleontologists, they did okay hunting and eating formidable
prey ’cause not all island species get small. JARED DIAMOND: Warm-blooded animals shrink
on islands. Cold-blooded animals often expand on islands, to fill the niche left by lions
and tigers that could not get out there. ROBERT KRULWICH: The evidence suggests little
people ate Komodo dragon. And these guys weigh in at what? JARED DIAMOND: Up to 500 pounds. But it’s
worse than that. ROBERT KRULWICH: Because back then, apparently,
Komodo dragons were even bigger, and if you get near their mouths… You see that spit? JARED DIAMOND: It’s spit that contains botulism
bacteria and anthrax and other things you wouldn’t want to get infected by, really nasty
bacteria. ROBERT KRULWICH: So, most likely, if you were
three feet tall, you’d want to hunt these animals in groups. Would that, in your sense require some kind
of signaling or language or “Watch out, Joe! Here comes the lizard,”? RALPH HOLLOWAY: Yeah, I tend to be in that
camp. I really do think that communal hunting, and so forth, has to involve language. ROBERT KRULWICH: Language, tools, technology,
maybe the little people did all that, but if they did it with brains a third our size,
those brains would be very different, radically different. RALPH HOLLOWAY: And that may be one of the
great lessons of this, if it turns out…you know, it may tell us…Hey… ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh, you’re suggesting that
maybe this brain is organized differently so it can do more in a little space? RALPH HOLLOWAY: Oh, it’s definitely organized
differently, and it may have done more in a little bit of space, absolutely. ROBERT KRULWICH: And if that’s true, brain
scientists would have a whole new model for human intelligence, and that’s huge. Meanwhile, back at the cave site, the Australians
say they’ve discovered fragments from seven additional individuals, all, they claim, appear
to be little people. But the biggest shock was yet to come: the
age of these remains. Paleontologists say that the first Homo erectus creatures arrived
on Flores something like 800,000 years ago. So scientists figured, “Well, then, these
skeletons would be old.” KIRA WESTAWAY (University of Wollongong):
We were all expecting it to be may be sixty, a hundred thousand years old. ROBERT KRULWICH: But when they aged these
bones, one sample was only 18,000 years old. In paleontology, that’s like the day before
yesterday. KIRA WESTAWAY: The fact that it came out at
18,000 was pretty much a shock to everybody. ROBERT KRULWICH: A shock because that means
that these little people were alive during, well, modern times. MICHAEL JOHN MORWOOD: We know that modern
humans have been in that area for at least 50,000 years. ROBERT KRULWICH: So, if you do the math, little
people and big people shared this island for over 30,000 years! JARED DIAMOND: The final question that everybody
is too shy to ask is, well er, uh, um, “Did we, or didn’t we have sex with them?” ROBERT KRULWICH: Because if little people
became a different species, they branched away from humans and couldn’t have babies
with us, and wouldn’t want to. JARED DIAMOND: My bet is we did not have sex
with them. And here’s my reasoning. I would have predicted that they would have been really
nasty, just like any humans would be really nasty. ROBERT KRULWICH: Because looking at the other
was like, this is an other. I don’t know why he’s doing this. JARED DIAMOND: That’s right. That’s right. ROBERT KRULWICH: To test this you’d want to
analyze the little people’s DNA. RICHARD ROBERTS: Then we can compare their
DNA with our DNA and we’ll have a case for whether we may or may not have interbred as
we came through Southeast Asia on our way to Australia. ROBERT KRULWICH: So what happened to the little
people of Flores? It looks like they were wiped outóalong with those little elephants
they were huntingóby a major volcanic eruption on the island about 12,000 years ago. Oróand
this is not impossibleócould the Ebu Gogo still exist? JARED DIAMOND: No. ROBERT KRULWICH: That’s one view. Here’s another. KERRY GRANT: I did have somebody speak to
me, a geologist, and he didn’t want to be named because, of course, he felt like if
he told people he’d seen little people, people would think he’d seen aliens or something
like that. So, at the moment, we are going to follow these stories of an actual cave
where they may have been living, and we, we do intend to go and excavate this actual cave. RICHARD ROBERTS: Folklore has it that they,
they just simply ran over the volcano nearby and disappeared further west. So, perhaps
in some other part of Flores, they might still be living. It’s not outrageous, but it’s highly
improbable. But it’d be worth looking, just in case that did happen to be the case. ROBERT KRULWICH: And now we are going to make
something. I’m not going to tell you what it is we’re making; you’ll have to guess.
But we will give you all the ingredients. We will do this in an English kitchen, so
we will use English measures. So this is a recipe for something. Can you guess what that something is? This recipe is key to the future: Take 3 liters of water. Add sufficient fat to make a small bar of
soap. Take enough carbon for 55 pencil leads. Mix with enough phosphorus to produce 135
match heads. (A generous helping of calcium always improves
the result.) Take enough sulfur to produce a couple of
stink bombs. Extract every atom of iron and zinc from a
galvanized roof tack. Garnish with traces of magnesium and potassium. Season with a pinch of salt. Bake in an oven at 37 degrees for 270 days. Monitor carefully until incubation is complete. We will return to the subject of making babies
later in the program when we talk about stem cells, which by the way, are, again, teeny,
teeny little things. But we shouldn’t dwell only on small things,
because sometimes big things, very big things, can be exciting and scary. So, if I may… Thank you.

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