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New York Times, April 10, 2019

In a cave in the Philippines, scientists have discovered a new branch of the human family tree.

At least 50,000 years ago, an extinct human species lived on what is now the island of Luzon, researchers reported on Wednesday. It’s possible that Homo luzonensis, as they’re calling the species, stood less than three feet tall.

The discovery adds growing complexity to the story of human evolution. It was not a simple march forward, as it once seemed. Instead, our lineage assumed an exuberant burst of strange forms along the way.

Our species, Homo sapiens, now inhabits a comparatively lonely world.

“The more fossils that people pull out of the ground, the more we realize that the variation that was present in the past far exceeds what we see in us today,” said Matthew Tocheri, a paleoanthropologist at Lakehead University in Canada, who was not involved in the new discovery.

In the early 2000s, Armand Salvador Mijares, a graduate student at the University of the Philippines, was digging at Callao Cave, on Luzon, for traces of the first farmers on the Philippines. Soon, he decided to dig a little deeper.

Researchers on the Indonesian island of Flores had discovered the bones of an extraordinary humanlike species about 60,000 years old. The scientists named it Homo floresiensis.

Some features were similar to ours, but in other ways Homo floresiensis more closely resembled other hominins (the term scientists use for modern humans and other species in our lineage).

Homo floresiensis was able to make stone tools, for example. But the adults stood only three feet high and had tiny brains. This strange combination led to debates about who, exactly, were their ancestors.

The oldest fossils of hominins, dating back over six million years, have all been found in Africa. For millions of years, hominins were short, small-brained, bipedal apes.

Starting about 2.5 million years ago, one lineage of African hominins began to evolve new traits — a flatter face, bigger brains and a taller body, among other features. These hominins were the first known members of our own genus, Homo. ...
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