Humans Wiped Out the Hobbit: New Study Suggests Homo Sapiens Caused Extinction of Tiny Homo Floresiensis Species
In October 2004, excavation of fragmentary skeletal remains from the island of Flores in Indonesia yielded what was called "the most important find in human evolution for 100 years." Its discoverers dubbed the find Homo floresiensis, a name suggesting a previously unknown species of human. It has frequently been referred to as the ‘Hobbit’ species due to its small stature. Homo floresiensis went extinct about 50,000 years ago and now new evidence suggests it was Homo sapiens who were responsible.
Homo floresiensis was first discovered in October 2004, when an excavation on the island of Flores in Indonesia yielded fragmentary skeletal remains of a hominid that is estimated to have had a height of only around 3 feet 6 inches.
Cave where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2004, Lian Bua, Flores, Indonesia. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Ever since its discovery, Homo floresiensis has been the subject of much debate and intense research to determine whether it represents a species distinct from modern humans (Homo sapiens), or whether the remains belong to a modern human with a disorder such as microcephalia, a condition characterized by a small head, short stature and some mental retardation.
Discovery News reported that “the Hobbit was a member of our family tree, belonging to the genus Homo and having descended from a population of Homo erectus that made its way to the island and shrunk in stature over evolutionary time due to the “island effect.” However, more recent research presented in the journal Nature suggests this human-like species might not have been human after all. Renowned paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London, suggests that the Hobbit species did not belong to the Homo lineage but was descended from Australopithecus, a genus of hominids that evolved in eastern Africa around 4 million years ago, spread out across the continent, and eventually became extinct around 2 million years ago. There is still no final consensus among scientists on the issue.
A reconstruction from a Homo floresiensis skull (Karen Neoh / Flickr)
The End of the Hobbit
A study published early this year in Nature, involving dating work in the Flores cave, determined that the Hobbit species went extinct about 50,000 years ago. It was known that Homo sapiens were present in southeast Asia around that time, but there was no conclusive evidence that they had been on the island of Flores or had any interaction with Homo floresiensis at all.
But now a new discovery of a pair of human teeth in the cave of Liang Bua on the island of Flores, again published in Nature, reveals that Homo sapiens were present on the island at least 46,000 years ago, suggesting their occupation did overlap with Homo floresiensis and that they may have been responsible for their extinction.
“The teeth are slightly younger than the known hobbit remains, which strengthens the case that humans were responsible for the species’ demise,” reports Nature.
“Other evidence presented by Sutikna puts humans in Liang Bua very soon after H. floresiensis vanished, which adds weight to the possibility that humans played a role in the extinction of hobbits, possibly by out-competing them for limited resources on Flores.”
While the evidence is far from conclusive, it does help to add another piece to a very complex puzzle. But still many questions remain, if the Flores skeleton does in fact represent a unique ancient species, how did it get to the island of Flores? How did they manage to survive until relatively recent times when many other species became extinct? Did they interbreed with modern humans? And what was the eventual reason for their disappearance? For now, the answers to all these questions are unknown but perhaps in time, we will learn the truth about what many believe is one of our most endearing relatives, the hobbit.
Top image: The toothy smiles of the hobbit skull (left) and a modern human skull (right). Credit: Professor Peter Brown, University of New England