Ancient islanders get a leg up

From San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Paleoanthropology Society and Society for American Archaeology meeting

Fossils of a humanlike species dubbed Homo floresiensis that lived on the Pacific island of Flores between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago recently grabbed headlines because scientists deduced that this creature stood no more than 1 meter tall and possessed a surprisingly small brain. Nonetheless, H. floresiensis packed considerable weight on its diminutive frame and possessed far stronger legs than people do today, says William L. Jungers of the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Jungers and his colleagues used a computed tomography scanner to measure the thickness and shape of three H. floresiensis leg bones from two individuals. Members of that species were shorter than today’s tiniest folk, Jungers notes. Still, the ancient individuals had leg bones as thick as those of some modern adults who would have towered over them, he says.

Calculations based on measures of upper-leg-bone lengths and thicknesses showed that these individuals had a leg strength “in another universe,” according to Jungers, compared with estimates for Homo sapiens from that time and measurements of modern people.

H. floresiensis adults weighed an estimated 25 to 35 kilograms (55 to 77 pounds). In body size and build, Jungers says, the Flores individuals strikingly resemble Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis skeleton from eastern Africa.

Some other investigators suspect that the Flores remains come from small people who had a genetic condition that drastically reduced their brain size (SN: 10/15/05, p. 244: Available to subscribers at Encore for Evolutionary Small-Timers: Tiny human cousins get younger with new finds).

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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