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The “Hobbits” Could Be Much Older Than Once Thought

The Flores hobbits’ ancestor may have ventured out of Africa much earlier than previously thought

Homo floresiensis (Katrina Kenny, SA Museum )
smithsonian.com

Over a decade ago, archeologists made a discovery of a lifetime in the Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia: 80,000-year-old teeth and bones of an adult and two children that seemed to have stood at just three-feet tall.  

Dubbed "hobbits" by the media, the debate has raged ever since over the origin of these tiny remains. What did the bones represent?

One of the main theories to emerge is that the skeletal remains came from Homo erectus, a direct ancestor of modern humans and the first hominid to reach Southeast Asia. Anatomist Alice Roberts writes for The Conversation that some argued that the creature, named Homo floresiensis, experienced insular dwarfism, a phenomenon in which animals that live on an island over time tend to shrink, like the four-foot-tall dwarf mammoths that developed on the island of Crete.

But a new study contradicts that hypothesis, supporting another popular idea that the hobbits emerged even earlier than Homo erectus, evolving around the same time as Homo habilis, which lived 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago. This suggests Homo floresiensis was a "sister species" of Homo habilis, and the two likely shared a common ancestor, says Debbie Argue, researcher at Australian National University’s School of Archaeology & Anthropology, in a press release. The results were published recently in the Journal of Human Evolution.

So how did researchers arrive at this revelation?

In the past, most studies of the hobbit focused on the skull and jaw fragments, according to the press release. So, as Melissa Davey at The Guardian reports, the researchers analyzed 133 data points from the skulls, leg, arm and shoulder bones and teeth of ancient and modern hominids to compare them to Homo floresiensis. Using statistical analysis, the researchers found that the hobbit’s bone structure differed greatly from Homo erectus, especially the jaw and pelvis. ​

Mike Lee, researcher at Flinders University and the South Australian Museum who performed the statistical modeling, tells Daveys that the findings are conclusive. “Homo floresiensis occupied a very primitive position on the human evolutionary tree,” he says. “We can be 99 percent sure it’s not related to Homo erectus and nearly 100 percent it isn’t a malformed Homo sapiens.”

As Roberts explains for The Conversation:

"In the most widely accepted model of human evolution today, the first emergence of hominins out of Africa involved Homo erectus, and happened some time after [2 million] years ago. But Homo floresiensis raises the tantalizing possibility of an earlier expansion of hominins—who were probably not-quite-Homo—out of Africa."

The hobbit’s ancestor likely went extinct in Asia when larger species like Homo erectus and anatomically modern humans moved into the area. But the hobbits on Flores were able to hang on until about 60,000 years ago, around the time when Homo sapiens left Africa and started moving into Asia, reports Alice Klein  for New Scientist

But, as Darren Curnoe writes for the Conversation, the discussion about the origins of the Hobbit is likely far from over. In just the past couple of years studies have been published both supporting and rejecting the diminutive hominid's position on the family tree with H. erectus. But with each study comes a little bit more information as scientists slowly piece together the puzzle of our complicated ancestry.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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