The inhabitants of Rampasasa insist their claimed genealogy is no tall tale. Indeed, among the rattan-and-thatch shacks of what otherwise seems an ordinary if very poor Flores village, it's hard not to notice the large number of very short people, particularly among the older folk, some of whom are the same height as a typical 10-year-old. Some six generations of intermarriage with outsiders, says Rampasasa's headman Alfredus Ontas, have left few truly tiny individuals. But to prove their antecedents, he and other locals eagerly display photos of recently deceased relatives whom they say were of purer "short people" stock. "The brothers in this photograph were only 110 cm," Ontas says proudly, his broad smile revealing jagged teeth stained ox-blood red by betel nut. Another elder is introduced, who, as well as measuring only 135 cm tall, has a pelt of hair covering his arms and legs. "It was because we were so hairy that our ancestors hid in Liang Bua," says Jurubu. "They were embarrassed."
Today, it's the villagers of Rampasasa who are causing others to be, if not embarrassed, then at least flustered. Liang Bua is where a team of Australian and Indonesian scientists reported in Nature magazine last October that they had discovered the bones of seven individuals ranging in age from 13,000 to 95,000 years old. (Another set was found later.) Among the findings: a nearly intact skeleton that the anthropologists said belonged to an adult female who lived as recently as 18,000 years ago yet was only the size of a modern-day 6-year-old. Because the female skeleton looked humanoid rather than human and the brain size was small, the researchers concluded she was not a Pygmy—a short but otherwise normal version of Homo sapiens you still find in equatorial Africa and pockets of Southeast Asia—but a member of an entirely new species whom its discoverers named Homo floresiensis. This species, say the scientists, probably branched off from Homo erectus, the commonly accepted ancestor of Homo sapiens. The news meant that the two different human species H. sapiens and H. floresiensis had been living parallel lives on earth at the same time. (The existence of H. sapiens dates back 250,000 years.) The story made headlines worldwide—TIME covered it last November, and National Geographic ran a lengthy feature in its April 2005 edition.
Now, however, the presence of small people living within strolling distance of Liang Bua has cast doubt over the separate-species theory, and sparked a bitter split in scientific circles over its validity. Battle lines have been drawn, with each side vigorously trying to discredit the other. Rampasasa "makes the short-stature argument completely irrelevant," says skeptic Alan Thorne, an anthropologist at the Australian National University. "There are plenty of Pygmies in that area. In the case of these bones, it was probably a diseased Pygmy." Counters Peter Brown, the University of New England paleoanthropologist who co-wrote the Nature report with a colleague, archaeologist Michael Morwood: "Of course, there are small-bodied people on Flores, but they don't have brains one-third the size of ours, or unusually shaped pelvises or very long arms like H. floresiensis. They are just small modern humans."
For Henry Gee, an editor at venerable Nature who was responsible for overseeing publication of the original H. floresiensis article, such squabbling is par for the course. "Science is a disputatious business, and human evolution is notorious for being even more disputatious. historically, whenever anyone discovers a new hominid, a lot of people come along and say it's an ape or a diseased human." Gee, who says the critics haven't shaken his belief that a new species has been found, cites the example of another hotly debated discovery, that of Australopithecus africanus in 1924, the so-called "missing link" between apes and human ancestors. "Nature published that paper too and all the great and good in the scientific establishment refused to believe it." It took 25 years, but eventually the discovery was accepted, Gee says, noting that it will be a while before H. floresiensis achieves complete acceptance as well. "They're going to have to discover some more bones that prove this, but we have history on our side."
Critics of the H. floresiensis hypothesis, meanwhile, are working overtime to disprove it. Thorne and a colleague spent three days in February examining the Liang Bua bones in Jakarta on the invitation of Teuku Jacob, Indonesia's most senior anthropologist, who gained possession of the bones for a brief period before handing them back to the Australian-Indonesian team that made the discovery. Thorne and another Australian scientist subsequently wrote a paper flatly rejecting the idea that a new species had been discovered. Jacob, who is among the fiercest critics of the H. floresiensis theory and has been accused by Brown of damaging the bones while they were in his possession (a charge he denies), led an expedition to Rampasasa in April to determine if its residents could indeed be classified as Pygmies (the height threshold is 150 cm or shorter). Jacob measured more than 70 villagers and says 80% of them qualified. The theory that Thorne, Jacob and other like-minded anthropologists are propagating is that the Liang Bua female was an ancestor of a Rampasasa villager and a Pygmy, but that she suffered from microcephaly, a condition that causes abnormally slow skull growth. Says Jacob: "They say they have eight specimens. But there is only one skull and that could be microcephalic. The rest could just be Pygmies and that is even more likely now that we know people in the area around the cave are also Pygmies." Brown's response to Jacob's assertion: "Complete rubbish" and "sour grapes."