Published online 27 October 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news041025-2


Flores, God and Cryptozoology

The discovery of Homo floresiensis raises hopes for yeti hunters and, says Henry Gee, poses thorny questions about the uniqueness of Homo sapiens.

If another species of humans existed so recently, perhaps stories of other human-like creatures might be founded on grains of truth?If another species of humans existed so recently, perhaps stories of other human-like creatures might be founded on grains of truth?©

When the first human colonists arrived on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia a few thousand years ago, they had no idea that they were treading on the remains of a lost world.

Until around 12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption seems to have ended the party, Flores was a looking-glass garden of Komodo dragons and even larger lizards, giant tortoises and enormous rats. Alongside them were tiny, primitive elephants and, as we now know, tiny, primitive people1,2.

Probably descended from full-sized Homo erectus that made landfall on Flores as much as 900,000 years ago3, the islanders dodged the dragons and hunted the elephants. Killers and quarry became smaller with each generation, instances of the well-known phenomenon of endemic dwarfing in small, inbred island populations, until they were transformed into new species. Homo erectus became Homo floresiensis.

These people, each a metre tall as an adult, lived on Flores from at least 38,000 years ago to 18,000 years ago2. But fossilization is a chancy business, so it is likely that they were there long before that interval... and long after it. They may have been alive when modern Homo sapiens arrived in the region. Yet as far as we know, Homo floresiensis survived for thousands of years, unnoticed and unmolested by humans, before becoming extinct.

Florid tales

“The discovery of”

The discovery that Homo floresiensis survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures such as yetis are founded on grains of truth.

In the light of the Flores skeleton, a recent initiative4 to scour central Sumatra for 'orang pendek' can be viewed in a more serious light. This small, hairy, manlike creature has hitherto been known only from Malay folklore, a debatable strand of hair and a footprint. Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold.

Another argument in favour of such searches comes from the recent discovery of several new species of large mammal, notably in Southeast Asia.

Easy to miss: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis was only discovered in 1992.Easy to miss: Pseudoryx nghetinhensis was only discovered in 1992.Source:

For example, Pseudoryx nghetinhensis5, a species of ox from the remote Vu Qiang nature reserve on the border between Vietnam and Laos, was first described from hunting trophies in only 1992. Another species of bovid, the kouprey (Bos sauveli), was discovered in Indochina in 1937.

Neither of these creatures is as exotic as a yeti or orang pendek, but the point is made. If animals as large as oxen can remain hidden into an era when we would expect that scientists had rustled every tree and bush in search of new forms of life, there is no reason why the same should not apply to new species of large primate, including members of the human family.

Cryptic clues

The discoverers of Homo floresiensis suggest that their find could be the first of many, and that other species of recently extinct humans might be discovered on other isolated islands.

“The discoverers of”

But whether other recently extinct (or extant) hominid species are found or not, the fact that even one distinct species of human was found to have lived alongside modern man not only enriches our understanding of recent human diversity; it could change our view of ourselves in a fundamental way.

As far as we know, Homo sapiens is the only species of human that yet lives on the planet. It is very easy to take this solitary estate (and our consequent separateness from the rest of the animal world) for granted, so much has it become ingrained in our philosophy, ethics and religion, even our science.

Until very recently, evolutionary thought was couched in terms of a linear, progressive trajectory rising from lower life forms and culminating in man. I have argued elsewhere that this view is not, regrettably, as extinct as it should be6.

In palaeoanthropology, this idea is seen in the view that only one species of hominid has existed at any one time, each one succeeding the next in a scheme of orderly replacement. This idea began to crumble in the 1970s7, since when discoveries of ancient relatives of humans have revealed a marked diversity of form. Human evolution is like a bush, not a ladder8.

But these discoveries concerned the more remote reaches of human ancestry. Despite the fact that some of our relatives, such as Neanderthal man and Homo erectus, are thought to have become extinct in relatively recent times9, our complacency that this view holds for recent history has not been shaken.

Until now. If it turns out that the diversity of human beings was always high, remained high until very recently and might not be entirely extinguished, we are entitled to question the security of some of our deepest beliefs. Will the real image of God please stand up?