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National Geographic Scientist Uncovers Treasure Trove of Human Fossils That Could Challenge Rules of Human Evolution

 

March 11, 2008 --

Tiny Humans Living as Recently as 1,500 Years Ago Could Rewrite the Timeline for Human Evolution

"Mystery Skulls of Palau" Premieres Monday, March 17, at 10 PM ET/PT


WASHINGTON, March 11 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- On the final day of his vacation in Palau, National Geographic research grantee and world-renowned paleoanthropologist Lee Berger accompanies a local guide to a hidden cave where he discovers a cache of fossilized human remains. Berger returns to the cave six weeks later with a team of elite scientists and finds not just one human skeleton, but several, unlike any he has ever seen. Measurements show that these people were some of the smallest humans to walk the earth, but they had enormous teeth. Has Berger discovered a lost human species or a tribe of mutants?

The story of human evolution is filled with unexpected twists and turns. In 2004, a groundbreaking discovery made headlines around the world when scientists revealed evidence of a lost human species on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. Researchers believe Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "The Hobbit," shared the earth with modern humans for at least 80,000 years. Is it possible that a wandering tribe of hobbit-like humans made their way 1,800 miles from Flores to Palau?

On Monday, March 17, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT -- on the heels of the March 11 scientific publication regarding these small-bodied humans -- join the expedition as Berger returns to uncover the unexpected revelations hidden among the "Mystery Skulls of Palau."

As the journey unfolds, the researchers excavate the delicate fossils, and the appearance of the cave's inhabitants starts to take shape. One skull has a pronounced brow ridge that looks somewhat like that of a Neanderthal, with a wide nose, small eyes and a strange, flat face. But then the mystery deepens. Within minutes of entering the cave, the research team makes another discovery that raises the stakes even higher: the plentitude of bones suggests that the cave could have been the mass grave of an entire community. The scientists begin their investigation by creating a laser grid of the cave to design a 3-D CGI map so they can easily return to the "virtual" cave once the expedition has ended. A geologist collects samples from different layers of the cave floor for carbon dating.

Back at a lab at Palau's National Museum, Berger and his team realize that what looked like a pronounced brow ridge is only a deposit of calcrete -- a mineral deposit left by rainwater over hundreds of years. When researchers scrape away the calcrete, the skull looks more modern, forcing the scientists to re-evaluate their estimate of the fossils' age. This yields an even more astonishing revelation: These bones could belong to an unknown tribe of tiny humans living in an evolutionary time warp just 3,000 years ago.

But Berger wants to know why the members of this tribe had such large teeth. One theory suggests that these people were Homo sapiens whose bodies and brain cavities shrank from one generation to the next to cope with a lack of nutrition, while their teeth, which typically evolve more slowly than other parts of the body, did not. This would mean that rather than evolving over tens of thousands of years, these "little people" evolved in size just a few hundred years after arriving in Palau.

At a carbon dating lab in Florida, samples taken from the cave confirm that the lost tribe existed in Palau between 3,000 and 1,500 years ago, perhaps supporting the idea that these people adapted to their surroundings in just a few hundred years. Evolutionary scientists have disputed the plausibility of this rapid rate of change in humans. The revolutionary findings in Palau could transform the way we think about human adaptability over just hundreds of years, instead of thousands.

On the final day of the expedition, Berger journeys to the other side of Palau to visit a second cave, and finds another spectacular, untapped treasure trove of hundreds of fossilized bones. The sheer number and age range of the bones, like those found in the first cave, could make them one of the greatest concentrations of fossilized human remains on the planet. One day the fossils may reveal how the tiny people of Palau lived, but until then, where these people came from, how they met their demise and their significance in our understanding of human evolution remains a mystery.

Other experts featured in the "Mystery Skulls of Palau" include Prithijit Chatrath, paleontologist, Duke University; Steve Churchill, paleontologist, Duke University; Dean Falk, anthropologist, Florida State University; Susan Larson, anatomist, Stony Brook State University of New York; William Jungers, anthropologist, Stony Brook University School of Medicine; and Rhonda Quinn, geologist, Rutgers University.

"Mystery Skulls of Palau" is produced by Parthenon Entertainment Limited for National Geographic Channel. Producer, director and editor for Parthenon is Ian Marsh, writer is Adam Meyer. For National Geographic Channel executive producer is Howard Swartz, senior vice president of production is Juliet Blake and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN). Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television. The network celebrated its fifth anniversary in January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD, which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high-definition. NGC has carriage with all of the nation's major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to nearly 66 million homes. For more information, please visit http://www.nationalgeographic.com/channel.

SOURCE National Geographic Channel

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