Dwarves or Not? New Evidence Disputes Claim That Prehistoric Islanders Were Dwarves

Author:  Brittany Raffa
Date:  October 2008

A new study by lead author Scott Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University suggests that early inhabitants of the Micronesian island Palau were simply small humans, not dwarves as suggested by a previous study. The study was published online August 27 at the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE.

The study contests an earlier study by anthropologist Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Berger concluded that inhabitants who arrived on the island 3,000 years ago took on a smaller stature as the result of evolution due to isolation and limited resources. These findings were based on human remains found in two burial caves called Ucheliungs and Omedokel on the same island.

The remains found by Fitzpatrick's team were evacuated from an ancient cemetery called Chelechol ra Orrak, or "Beach of Orrack," which is on a small island near the main Palau island. The remains include some 25 individuals of both sexes and a range of ages. "Detailed studies of human remains from Palau suggest that, over the past 3,000 years, these individuals were all normal-sized and what you would expect to see in a Micronesian population," said Fitzpatrick.

The remains found by Fitzpatrick show that adult females stood between 1.52 and 1.57 meters tall (about 5 feet), and the males were slightly smaller. Berger's team described the skeletons to be 3 to 4 feet tall. Fitzpatrick claimed that Berger mistook the height of the fossils he found by assuming that a small socket connecting the upper leg bone to the hip signified dwarflike height.

Furthermore, the study concludes that Orrak individuals had heads the size of later human populations in the region, and possessed teeth representative of hunter-gatherers. This contrasts with Berger's findings that the islanders had extremely large teeth resembling those of small-bodied human ancestors who lived 3 million years ago. Berger's findings also indicate that the bones showed archaic traits such as deep jaws, no chins, large teeth, and small eye sockets. Such traits could indicate insular dwarfism- an evolutionary process that can happen when isolated species confined to an island shrink in size because of limited food.

Fitzpatrick counters these findings by stating that the archaic traits were considered normal human variation and that insular dwarfism did not occur because the islanders "had a virtual cornucopia of food at their disposal" and archaeological evidence exists of prehistoric interactions between Palau and other places.

But there is an even more significant result of Fitzpatrick's research. In 2003, remains were found on the Indonesian island Flores of a full-grown individual of about 3 feet, nicknamed the "Flores skeleton" or "the hobbit." Many scientists believed it was actually a new species, homo floresiensis. But when the study by Berger was published, this changed. He claimed that the dwarfism found on the islands of Palau and Flores is not indicative of a unique new species, but rather humans had shrunk during evolution, and the Flores Hobbits had just shrunk more. The Fitzpatrick study now casts doubt on the hypothesis of Berger, and supports the previous hypothesis that the hobbit of Flores could be a new species.

Anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University called Fitzpatrick's paper a "slam dunk." Falk has done brain research on LB1-a Flores hobbit who lived 18,000 ago-and believes that it represents a new species. "This is a rigorous, very thoroughly scientific analysis, and I find it totally convincing," Falk said of the report. "They [explore] the chronology, they ask about language, they ask about migrations, they look at the archaeological record, and most importantly they look at body size and the various hypotheses."

But others disagree. Robert Eckhardt, professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, says that Fitzpatrick's findings have no significance on the dwarf debate and questions Fitzpatrick's use of the term "normal body size" to characterize prehistoric Palauans. "What is normal' in a species as highly variable anatomically as ours is?" he asks.

Yet, in rebuttal to Eckhardt's statement that the findings have no significance on the dwarf debate, we need just look at one of the primary purposes of Fitzpatrick's research: to demonstrate the error of Berger's claim that the dwarflike stature of the inhabitants had occurred through evolution. In Fitzpatrick's published article, he writes, "In a sense, we have used a "sledgehammer to crack a nut" by detailing numerous lines of evidence to refute narrowly constructed research that obviously had extensive methodological and analytical flaws. While some may see the Berger et al. paper as being so egregious that few will take it seriously (and as such, does not necessitate the lengthy response we have presented here), we feel that it is extremely important for the scientific community and laymen alike to be fully aware that the data described by Berger et al. is fundamentally flawed and does not mesh with the known biological and archaeological data from Palau.

Written by: Brittany Raffa

Edited by: Falishia Sloan

Published by: Hoi See Tsao