LIANG BUA, Indonesia - Hunched over a picnic table in a limestone cave, the Indonesian researcher gingerly fingers the bones of a giant rat for clues to the origins of a tiny human.
This world turned upside down may once have existed here, on the remote island of Flores, where an international team is trying to shed light on the fossilized 18,000-year-old skeleton of a dwarf cavewoman whose discovery in 2003 was an international sensation. Her scientific name is Homo floresiensis, her nickname is "the hobbit," and the hunt is on to prove that she and the dozen other hobbits since discovered are not a quirk of nature but members of a distinct hominid species.
The discovery of Homo floresiensis shocked and divided scientists. Here apparently was a band of distant relatives that exhibited features not seen for millions of years but were living at the same time as much more modern humans. Almost overnight, the find threatened to change our understanding of human evolution. Critics, however, dismissed the hobbit's discovery, arguing that the hobbit, 3 feet tall with a brain the size of a baby's, was nothing more than a deformed human.
But a growing consensus has emerged that this is indeed a separate and primitive species that lived in relatively modern times - 17,000 to 100,000 years ago. William L. Jungers, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center, insisted the debate was over. He has published a study of the hobbit's feet, which found it had traits associated with both modern humans and apes. "This is a new species that cannot be explained by any known pathology," Jungers said.
The discovery of the hobbit suggests important stages in hominid evolution may have occurred in Asia, said Australian archaeologist Mike Morwood, coordinator of the hobbit dig. For example, he said, it may turn out that Homo erectus evolved in Asia and not Africa.
This year, the team plans to excavate a spot at Liang Bua that is among the most promising areas of the cave. On their wish list are another hobbit skull, more teeth and wrist bones.
"It would be nice to have a whole complete male," Morwood said.