Stories of mysterious diminutive people living deep in the tropical forests of Indonesia have persisted from ancient times into the present day. One of these supposedly mythical little people was even caught on video, which subsequently became a viral hit on the internet. The video showed a tiny sized man running through Sumatran forests, locals claim he is a member of a rumored uncontacted tribe known as the Mante, located somewhere in Aceh.
Academics from archaeology and anthropology have long dismissed all talk of minuscule human beings resident in Oceania as being the product of cultural beliefs and little more than fanciful campfire tales. As is often the case in anthropological research local people are written off as being essentially deluded or outright liars, no matter how much they insist on having had multiple encounters. Anomalous phenomena are not accepted as valid until a western authority figure states it to be so, a standard highly offensive practice within European and American anthropological thinking.
What we found
A series of archaeological discoveries across the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines have squarely indicated to the existence of a widespread population of unusually short humans across island Southeast Asia from Mesolithic times until very recently – perhaps even the present day.
The fossil finds on Flores suggest the local hominins, Homo floresiensis, (Hobbit people) may have been present from one 1,000,000 until sometime in the last 50,000 years, while similar beings on Luzon, Homo luzonensis, are dated to at least 50,000 – 67,000 years before present. It left researchers able to dismiss the idea these people either continued or spread their genes to modern humans in the region. Today a new discovery is once again changing the human story and forcing a re-evaluation of the conventional narrative.
Researchers associated with The Australian National University have announced the discovery of the oldest human remains to be discovered on Alor island in Indonesia. The scientists believe this discovery will provide new insights into human migrations through Island Southeast Asia prior to the end of the last ice-age.
Dr. Sofía Samper Carro, the team leader at the discovery site, announced that two skulls had been dated to between 12,000 and 17,000 years old. This age makes the skulls the earliest examples of human remains ever found on the islands of Wallacea, positioned between Java to the west and the coasts of Northern Australasia to the southeast.
“Although we were aware that modern humans were in Timor and Sulawesi over 40,000 years ago, these remains are the first fossil evidence of modern human presence in Wallacea,” Dr Samper Carro said.
The scientific investigation has led to speculation that Alor may have been part of a migration highway, acting as one steppingstone on a route through the islands as people headed for Australia.
While the discovery of Alor’s first ancient human remains has been received with some degree of excitement, there is a more intriguing revelation associated with the analysis of the skulls.
“What is really interesting is the small size of their heads,” Dr Samper Carro said.
The observed measurements of the two cranium fit with other sets of remains across the region, particularly some that are dated to around 7,000 – 10,000 years before present. Strangely this reduced cranial capacity in adult humans is not typical across Australia and mainland Southeast Asia during the associated period. While there are some exceptions, most Australians and Southeast Asians have skulls of average modern human size, significantly larger than those of the people unearthed on Alor.
Dr. Samper Carro suggests that decreasing body size may have resulted from a human population becoming isolated on a small island, through a process known as the ‘island effect’. The idea is that when large mammals reach an island that does not offer sufficient food resources, they tend to evolve smaller body size over time, conversely, very small mammals sometimes grow larger in these isolated environments.
“It’s been suggested this is what maybe happened to Homo floresiensis (hobbit) and, potentially, it may have also affected the recently discovered Homo luzonensis,” Dr Samper Carro said.
There are problems with employing island dwarfism as the explanation, various academics have cast doubt on it being a legitimate argument. One paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society (in 2007), for instance, claimed that “there is no evidence for the existence of the island rule,” and that the patterns observed by past scientists were more nuanced than any universal rule would allow for.
Consider for a moment just how many populations of human beings live on islands around the world and yet how extraordinary it is to hear of any notable signs of island dwarfism. We should also keep in mind that humans are not really a very large mammal, the pressure which might lead to elephants becoming smaller on an island need not apply to a creature of our own size. The other thing is that unlike other animals’ humans are highly adaptable and are not limited to any particular foodstuff (unlike say the panda which eats bamboo as 99% of its diet). Even a tiny island can provide plenty of sustenance if you can, let’s say, catch fish for example.
Indeed, huge amounts of fish bones have also been found at the Tron Bon Lei archaeological site on Alor, suggesting the local population was a capable fishing culture – not surprising for island dwellers. In fact, there is evidence elsewhere in Indonesia, on nearby East Timor, that humans were even deep-sea fishing for shark and tuna by 42,000 years ago.
All the additional information would seem to put the island dwarfism through lack of food theory on very shaky ground. We should also question why humans would stay and starve anywhere when they could simply sail away to a new island, and indeed exactly this is indicated in the local archaeological record.
“The archaeological site show gaps which may indicate that, at some point, humans moved from the island, or they weren’t using this particular site and they went somewhere else. This could be because of environmental changes, or because they didn’t have enough food to survive. More excavations and research in Alor will help us to test these theories.”
Dr. Carro highlights that the findings could help further extrapolate details of the ancient human migrations in the region. The scientific researcher rightly notes that human evolution studies have largely focused on Africa and Europe over the last century or so, but that a list of stunning new discoveries from Asia is challenging our previous conceptions.
One of the skulls was discovered alongside fish hooks and ornaments, which may allow for additional cultural research. We can only wonder if perhaps this will provide clues as to who these people were, and perhaps, more importantly, identify where their ancestors arrived from and which way they were migrating.