Published online 10 March 2008 | Nature 452, 133- (2008) | doi:10.1038/452133a

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Pacific "dwarf" bones cause controversy

Some researchers think the Palau finds are the remains of youngsters.

Palau could be home to a newly discovered small human species.Doug Perrine / NaturePL.com

KOROR, PALAU An anthropologist claims to have identified a number of bones belonging to a new type of small-bodied human in island caves in the South Pacific.

Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa asserts that the skulls and bones, belonging to 26 individuals that lived between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago, provide new insight into how humans can dwarf in island settings. If so, the find fuels the debate on the ‘hobbit’ — a small early-human skeleton found in Flores, Indonesia, about 2,000 kilometres south of Palau1. Some researchers claim the hobbit is a separate species, Homo floresiensis, which survived on Flores until 13,000 years ago; others say the bones are of dwarfed or otherwise malformed Homo sapiens.

Berger is not calling the Palau bones a new species: unlike in the Flores hobbit, the Palau skulls show no evidence of a particularly small brain. Berger says the small pelvis, dental formations and long-bone measurements belong to true dwarfs — people who got smaller, perhaps owing to the islands’ limited resources or a genetic disorder. “I felt right away this was a minute human being,” he says. Berger and his colleagues report their findings this week in the journal PLoS One2.

But other researchers are sceptical of the dwarf theory. “On a scientific level, it is almost unbelievable,” says Scott Fitzpatrick, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who has studied the region for a decade. “This will really take independent confirmation.”

The Palau bones could simply belong to children. Fitzpatrick found a number of juvenile bones at the burial site he studied on Orrak Island, four kilometres north of one of Berger’s sites. It may have been local custom to bury children together, he notes.

Fitzpatrick questions why this group would dwarf when people of normal stature lived around them at the same time. “This seems very weird to me,” he says. Fitzpatrick has reported on the western Pacific’s oldest burials, dated to 3,000 years ago, on a Palau island just north of Berger’s sites3. The new claim was first disclosed in a commercial movie produced by the National Geographic Society, which partially funded Berger’s work. Although the movie is not scheduled for broadcast in the United States until 17 March, it was shown in Asia on 1 March, before the journal publication, drawing criticism.

In Palau, some officials and traditional leaders are concerned that sacred burial sites were exploited for movie-making rather than scientific purposes. Adalbert Eledui, the state resource manager who oversees the region, describes the movie as “unscientific” and says he should have had notice before it was broadcast to protect the sites from an expected influx of visitors. Now, he says, resource managers may need to build cages to restrict access to the caves.

The bones Berger describes come from two burial sites 15 kilometres apart, long known to scientists, tourists and looters. One site, Ucheliungs, is called ‘Tarzan cave’ locally, because people swing from its vines. The other, Omedokel — known as ‘bone cave’ — is in the heart of diving waters and once contained piles of bones, skulls, pottery and other artefacts that have mostly been looted.

Most of the island’s chiefs had never visited the caves before last week, because Palauans typically avoid burial sites. Palau’s paramount chief Yutaka Gibbons told Nature that he had heard about the bones from people talking in a restaurant about the movie. “This shows disrespect to our people, country and laws,” he says. “Before they did anything, they should have sat with us.” Berger says he believed that traditional leaders had been briefed on his work in the caves.

“This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media,” says Tim White, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Berger says he didn’t know the movie was scheduled to première before the journal report came out. “That is just stupid,” he says. 

  • References

    1. Brown, P. et al. Nature 431, 1055–1061 (2004).
    2. Berger, L. R., Churchill, S. E., De Klerk, B. & Quinn, R. L. PLoS One 3, e1780 (2008).
    3. Fitzpatrick, S. M. Antiquity 77, 719–731 (2003).
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