Flores Hobbits May Have Floated to the Island on Leaf Nests
While Frodo in Tolkien’s Middle Earth ventured very far to destroy a magic ring and Gollum was a good swimmer, real-life ‘hobbit’ ancestors may have also traversed far to get to their island!
After almost 20 years since the Homo floresiensis (nicknamed "hobbits") discovery was announced to the world, scientists are still asking many questions, including if they were human, a different hominid species, and equally importantly, how they managed to get there?
In an interview with the author, anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University suggested that the ancestors of the tiny beings accidentally floated to the Indonesian island of Flores in sleeping nests they had built in trees out of leaves and other plant matter.
These nests ended up in the sea, and “floated away” she said, adding, “Whatever they were made of depends on where they came from.” And we don’t even know where they began. But some proposed starting sites could have been Java, Sulawesi, or the Philippines, perhaps after leaving mainland Asia.
Falk suggests palm trees are “natural raft material, particularly in that part of the world.” Even today one sees the dispersal of snails and other small creatures attached to floating palm leaves.
Map of Wallacea showing the location of Sulawesi. (Base map generated using ArcGIS by M. Kottermair and A. Jalandoni / Plos One.)
Natural Nesting of the Great Apes
The precursors to hobbits were probably social beings that likely bedded down at night in sleeping nests constructed of neighboring trees, as the sleeping nests of African great apes are. Falk suggests that sleeping nests and their occupants were periodically swept to sea during floods or tsunamis. Such weather patterns are frequent in that part of the world and “if it happened enough times there is the possibility of establishing a viable founding population.”
“These baskets in the trees would have become baskets in the seas,” Falk said, explaining all of the great apes build sleeping nests. They build and sleep in a new nest every night and climb out each morning to socialize with fellow apes. Then they wander off in smaller groups in search of food, and meet up later in the afternoon at another dwelling site. Falk theorizes that the beds that we sleep in today are "evolutionary hand-me-downs" from such tree nests.
Orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees including bonobos build tree nests. Gorillas and some chimps build nests on the ground as well. They crafted these after they got “too big” via evolution to sleep in trees without support, as monkeys do. “After all, they are called “great” apes for a reason!”
Falk mentioned that human babies are the only higher primate (which include monkeys, apes, and humans) that must be carried by mothers (or others) because they are unable to hang on by themselves - an ability human babies have totally lost. She suggested that hobbits may have built slings from botanical materials to hold babies as ancient humans did.
Primatologist Dr. Thurston Cleveland Hicks of The Faculty of Artes Liberales, The University of Warsaw who has studied ground-nesting chimps said:
“The fact that all non-human great apes construct night nests implies that our own hominid ancestors likely made them as well, at least early on. So, learning about nest making in our closest relatives can help us understand that of our own ancestors.”
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Flores hobbits built tree nests to protect themselves from predators and from possible floods. Chimpanzee tree nest. (Gregoire Dubois/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Nesting Likelihood of Homo floresiensis
It is possible that the hobbit precursors built the nests on trees to avoid predators; this is speculative depending on where their precursors lived and alongside which animals.
As for hobbits’ weaving ability and dexterity, we know that they made stone tools and the anatomy of their shoulders, hands and feet were consistent with continuing to spend time in trees, even though they were terrestrial mostly. And humans can also still climb trees.
Emma Bird, research assistant at Centre for Human Evolution Research, Natural history museum said “Determining the level of dexterity in Homo floresiensis is difficult” because among the hand and wrist bones found, many pieces are missing entirely.
She added that they had “increased manual dexterity relative to chimpanzees”.
Flores is one of many islands that lie in between Wallace's Line and west of Lydekker's Line. Wallacean islands are unique because they have rarely, if ever, connected to either the mainland of Asia or Australia.
Because of deep sea trenches and swift ocean currents, only a small number of mammal and reptilian species lived on Flores in the Pleistocene era. These included komodo dragons, other monitors, crocodiles, tortoises and the stegodon, (an extinct relative of the elephant). There were also large rats.
The founding ancestors of many of these animals likely arrived on rafts of floating vegetation - this is obviously the most plausible explanation. Similarly, the ancestors of the lemurs that live today on Madagascar and monkeys in the Caribbean, probably arrived accidentally on natural rafts of floating vegetation, including wood. However, these animals did not deliberately make rafts or set sail!
Diorama at the Human Evolution Hall Mexico City Natural History Museum. (Claudio Estrada Clamont Mexico City Natural History Museum)
Why Did the Flores Hobbits Evolve?
Another factor to consider is Island dwarfism. The hobbits probably shrunk from a larger body form to conserve energy as did elephant like stegodons - a phenomenon called Island dwarfism. Conversely, small animals become larger on islands such as Flores’ Komodo dragons and the dodo or Galapagos tortoises – Island gigantism.
Karen Baab anthropologist at Midwestern University said, “Homo floresiensis (aka The Hobbits) are quite unique in being both small-bodied and small-brained, as well as presenting some primitive anatomy, at such a recent time point in human evolutionary history.” She explained that even though island life can cause “big changes in animals’ bodies”, this hominid stands out because we have seen “very few examples of this in human evolution”.
To date, scientists haven’t been able to gather usable DNA from Homo floresiensis. Different researchers theorize that they are either diminutive descendants from Homo erectus, Homo habilis, or even more ancient hominins (called australopithecines) that once lived in Africa. Still much debate whether they were dwarfed Homo erectus or another lineage that came from Africa.
The first individuals to land on Flores might have included breeding pairs and/or pregnant females. If they’d washed out to sea in adjacent sleeping nests, as Falk suggests, they would have likely been from the same communities and, thus, have possessed relatively low genetic diversity. There is evidence that the Island’s rodents came in several waves. It’s not known if this happened in the case for ancestral hobbits, which could have added to their genetic diversity.
There are those who associate Flores hobbits with Ebu Gogo (granny flesh eater) a type of forest spirit in local mythology. Local legend has it that the Ebu Gogo kidnapped children who often ended up outsmarting them and escaping - much like the Grimm’s fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. Some say Ebu Gogo is a remnant of folk memory stemming from human-hobbit interactions.
The Ebu Gogo are humanoid-like creatures that appear in Flores, Indonesian mythology. (hodarinundu/Instagram)
The discovery of H. floresiensis came close to the release of The Lord of The Rings film series (the first came in 2001) based on JRR Tolkien’s novels, which is likely why scientists dubbed them hobbits and the name stuck on. And there are those in both the scientific and Hollywood communities who dislike the term.
When Human ancestors walked out of Africa, they went through Arabia into Asia and, much later, via several pathways to Europe. More recently, humans got to the Americas via a land bridge, and they may have used deliberately-constructed sea vessels to sail along the coast. Well before then, however, early H. erectus traversed all the way to Southeast Asia on foot. Until proven otherwise, hobbits appear to represent the descendants of a fringe population of these early hominins that accidentally rafted to Flores where it managed to survive until around 50,000 years ago. Homo erectus is a most widely accepted ancestral model - although many in the scientific community disagree.
- Study Says that Hobbits of Flores Island Are Not Homo Sapiens
- Humans Wiped Out the Hobbit: New Study Suggests Homo sapiens Caused Extinction of Tiny Homo Floresiensis Species
Back in 2004, while searching for evidence of the first humans to migrate to Australia, a team made the remarkable discovery of these hominids in the Liang Bua cave on Flores. Now, almost 20 years later and we still have so many mysteries to uncover. Why did they become extinct? The island was volcanic and had many predators and severe weather. Or maybe humans wiped them out?
Who knows what we will uncover next? Did hobbits have a language, how long were their lifespans, and did they interbreed with modern Homo sapiens?
Falk added “Give it another ten years and we should have some answers!”
Top image: Flores hobbits may have arrived on leaf baskets. Here they interact with stegodons and Komodo dragon. Source: Peter Schouten
By Avi Kumar