Reprinted from the December 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.

The recent sensational announcement that a new species of human has been discovered in Indonesia will have a huge impact on both science and religion. While scientists scramble to rewrite the textbooks, theologians need to confront the implications of the discovery for the question: What does it mean to be human?

Remains of as many as seven hominids were found on the island of Flores by a joint team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists. The results were published in the October issue of Nature. Two features in particular stunned the scientists. The first is that the hominids were only about 1 meter (3 feet) tall in their adult form, and had a brain capacity just about the same as that of a chimpanzee. Yet the remains were found in association with sophisticated stone tools and the use of fire, suggesting that the "hobbits," as these new hominids have inevitably been nicknamed, were every bit as advanced as Homo sapiens (our own species of human) at the time.

The second astonishing fact is that the most recent remains are dated at only 18,000 years, implying that hobbits and our direct ancestors were contemporaneous. Homo sapiens are known to have occupied Indonesia for at least 20,000 years, and must have passed through it to reach Australia at least 50,000 years ago.

Although the researchers have not yet been successful in sequencing DNA from the fossils, anatomical features strongly suggest that the hobbits, whose scientific name is Homo floresiensis, are not a subspecies of Homo sapiens (which left Africa about 120,000 years ago). Rather, they seem to be descended from an earlier hominid - Homo erectus - a different species entirely, which migrated from Africa to Asia more than 1 million years ago. Archaeologists had previously unearthed tools left by Homo erectus on Flores more than 800,000 years ago, and they hypothesize that descendants of these early settlers evolved a form of extreme dwarfism in response to geographical isolation and poor food supply on the island. Significantly, Flores also had dwarf elephants.

Biologists often remark that Homo sapiens is unusual in being the only extant representative of its genus. All else being equal, scientists would have expected several species of Homo to coexist. Now it seems that 30,000 years ago there were at least three human species - including Neanderthal man - and as recently as a few thousand years ago, we shared our planet with one other species. And there may well be additional species waiting in the Indonesian archipelago to be discovered. Evidently, the human tree is more bushy than we have supposed.

The new findings will overturn a lot of assumptions about human origins and the evolution of intelligence. Flores was never connected to the Asian landmass in the recent past, implying that the hobbits (or their ancestors) were not only tool-makers but also sailors. The hobbits' dwarfism is quite unlike that of the African pygmies, whose brain size is comparable to the rest of Homo sapiens. Biologists recognize that brain size per se is not a good indicator of intelligence; for example, a domestic cat is no less intelligent than a lion, yet its brain is far smaller. A better measure is the so-called encephalization quotient, or EQ, defined in terms of the ratio of brain mass to body mass.

The Flores fossils show the hobbits not only had smaller brains than we do, but they also had a much smaller EQ. So Homo floresiensis represents a reversal of the much-touted trend to higher EQ; a clear example of evolutionary regression, or, at best, stasis.

If the interpretation of the hobbits' tools and other artifacts is sound, the conclusion might then be that EQ is simply a bad parameter to gauge intelligence, and that we are embarrassingly far from understanding both the biology and the evolution of intelligence. Alternatively, the hobbits' prowess and abilities may have been overstated, and they may instead represent a case of evolution selecting for declining intelligence in favor of smaller body mass. Answers to these troubling questions will require more research and, hopefully, will be aided by additional fossil remains.

The theological implications of the discovery are no less challenging than the scientific. Most of the world's major religions are founded on the notion that mankind enjoys a special status in relation to God.

Christianity in particular is species-specific, in that Jesus Christ took on human flesh to save humankind. But what, exactly, is humankind? So long as Homo sapiens stood apart, biologically speaking, from the rest of the animal kingdom, this was not an issue.

To be sure, there has been some lively debate about whether higheranimals have souls and can also be saved, but there is no doubt that the huge gulf between Homo sapiens and chimpanzees (our closest living relatives) has been of great significance to those who place humans in a theological class apart.