Pygmy population near cave where Homo floresiensis fossils were found appears to have evolved short stature independently from the mysterious ancient hominins
August 02, 2018
By Tim Stephens
A fossil skeleton found in a cave on Flores Island, Indonesia, in 2004 turned out to be a previously unknown, very small species of human. Nicknamed the “hobbit” (officially Homo floresiensis), it remains a mysterious species with an unknown relationship to modern humans.
Intriguingly, the current inhabitants of Flores include a pygmy population living in a village near the Liang Bua cave where the fossils were found. An international team of scientists has now sequenced and analyzed the genomes of 32 people in this population. The analysis revealed evolutionary changes associated with diet and short stature in the pygmy population, but the researchers found no evidence of genetic elements that might have come from H. floresiensis.
“If there was any chance to know the hobbit genetically from the genomes of extant humans, this would have been it. But we don’t see it. There is no indication of gene flow from the hobbit into people living today,” said Richard E. Green, associate professor of biomolecular engineering at UC Santa Cruz and corresponding author of a paper on the findings published August 3 in Science.
Thus far, no one has been able to recover DNA from the H. floresiensis fossils. The researchers therefore searched the pygmy genome for any evidence of DNA sequences from an unknown ancient human lineage.
Green and other researchers previously recovered and sequenced DNA from fossils of other archaic humans—the Neanderthals and Denisovans—and determined that the genomes of some modern humans include DNA sequences inherited from those extinct human species. Those findings mean some interbreeding occurred in the distant past. The genomes of the Flores pygmies include small amounts of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, similar to other populations in Southeast Asia and Melanesia.