A new species of human has been discovered in a cave in the Philippines. Named Homo luzonensis after the island of Luzon where it was found, the hominin appears to have lived over 50,000 years ago, painting a more complete picture of human evolution.

The new species is known from 12 bones found in Callao Cave, which are thought to be the remains of at least two adults and a juvenile. This includes several finger and toe bones, some teeth and a partial femur. While that might not sound like much to work with, scientists can use that to determine more than you might expect.

"There are some really interesting features – for example, the teeth are really small," says Professor Philip Piper, co-author of the study. "The size of the teeth generally, though not always, reflect the overall body-size of a mammal, so we think Homo luzonensis was probably relatively small. Exactly how small we don't know yet. We would need to find some skeletal elements from which we could measure body-size more precisely."

Even with those scattered bones, scientists are able to start slotting Homo luzonensis into the hominin family tree. Although it is a distinct species of its own, it does share different traits with many of its relatives, including Neanderthals, modern humans, and most notably Homo floresiensis – the "Hobbit" humans discovered in an Indonesian cave in 2003. But perhaps the strangest family resemblance is to the Australopithecus, a far more ancient ancestor of ours.

"It's quite incredible, the hand and feet bones are remarkably Australopithecine-like," says Piper. "The Australopithecines last walked the Earth in Africa about 2 million years ago and are considered to be the ancestors of the Homo group, which includes modern humans. So, the question is whether some of these features evolved as adaptations to island life, or whether they are anatomical traits passed down to Homo luzonensis from their ancestors over the preceding 2 million years."

The research was published in the journal Nature.

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