Just over a decade after the sensational revelation that a species of hobbit-sized humanoids lived on the Indonesian island of Flores between 17,000 and 95,000 years ago, researchers discovered crucial clues to the identity of the hobbit’s ancestors literally hours before giving up the ghost, according to a new report in Nature.
In 2003, scientists unleashed a storm by revealing they had found the remains of a one metre tall relative of modern humans in Liang Bua Cave on Flores. The team, led by Australian rock-art specialist Mike Morwood, speculated that the diminutive figure—known as Homo floresiensis to scientists, and the Hobbit by everyone else—was a bonsai version of Homo erectus, the species of biped that probably evolved into Homo sapiens in Africa, and then went wandering off to the furthest corners of Europe and Asia to ultimately give rise to you and me.
Another argument in archeological and anthropological circles, however, held that the enigmatic early human had descended from an even smaller and more primitive relative named Homo habilis (or perhaps even Australopithecus, a species found in sub-Saharan Africa, best known for the remains that became known as Lucy).
Professor Morwood died in 2013, but his work was continued by Dr Gerrit van den Bergh. By 2014, however, after ten years of digging with little to show for it, the team were about to down tools and quit. Just before they did, a local worker suddenly found some teeth and a partial jawbone that quickly changed everything.
‘We had this enormous party,’ recalls the palaeontologist Dr Gerrit van den Bergh. ‘We had a cow slaughter and there was dancing. It was marvellous.’
The tiny teeth and little jaw revealed close resemblences to the body of the hobbit, and have been identified as belonging to one adult and two children who lived approximately 700,000 years ago. As the first evidence of the hobbit’s ancestry, they provide vital clues to the little homonin’s past.
After closer analysis, scientists concluded that the square teeth were intermediate between Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis, supporting Professor Morwood’s theory. The results suggest that Homo erectus arrived on Flores about one million years ago, and was then dwarfed by their island diet over the course of several hundred thousand years, in much the same way that species such as the pygmy elephants of Borneo have become much smaller than their massive mainland cousins. Dr van den Bergh also points to the example of red deer on the island of Jersey in the English Channel, which became one-sixth of their original size in just 6,000 years.
The teeth were discovered sunken into sandstone in a small river, which Dr van den Bergh hopes will yield more remains, and his colleagues working in Sulawesi, north of Flores, have recently found stone tools, so scientists believe there are plenty more plot twist to come in the story of the human hobbits.