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A model of a female Homo floresiensis.

Study Says that Hobbits of Flores Island Are Not Homo Sapiens

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The question about the origins of Homo floresiensis has been one of the most important problems of modern science since 2003, when a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers excavated some 18,000 year-old bones. Now, scientists believe they have discovered the truth about the beings fondly called “Hobbits.”

The bones of Homo floresiensis were discovered during an excavation of a limestone cave on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. The aim of the work was to find evidence of the original human migration of  Homo sapiens from Asia to Australia. The remains found were of a woman whose skull was less than one-third the size of Homo sapiens. Thus, the researchers began to look for clues to decide if the owner of the skull was a modern human or a different species. According to Discovery News, the mystery may now be solved.

French scientists, connected with France's Natural History Museum and Paris-Descartes University, conducted research regarding the origins of the being dubbed “'Hobbit.” Antoine Balzeau, a scientist, and Phillipe Charlier, a palaeontologist specialized in solving ancient medical mysteries, secured high-resolution images recently generated in Japan to compute layers of bone thickness in the Hobbit skull. To be more precise, they re-examined the remains of Liang Bua 1, which are about 15,000 years old and the most intact of nine known specimens. Their results have been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit") skull.

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit") skull. (CC BY SA 2.0)

"So far, we have been basing our conclusions on images where you don't really see very much. There is a lot of information contained in bone layers of the skull. There were no characteristics from our species. For the moment, we can't say one way or the other." said the lead author Antoine Balzeau to AFP

The researchers assert that their results from the examination of the skull prove that there is no evidence for the Hobbits being small humans with a genetic disease. As a result, they solved one problem but created another one. Now, the most intriguing question has become if the Hobbits are instead a scaled-down version of Homo erectus.

Previously, a project led by Yousuke Kaifu of the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan, claimed that the Homo floresiensis were descendants of Homo erectus who arrived to the island of Java, Indonesia. Their research suggests that the Hobbits lived during a time when it was possible to walk to the area of modern Indonesia from other locations. When the sea rose, it cut them off and they had no way to return to the continent. Their bodies were said to have evolved to smaller sizes because the island did not provide enough food. Archaeologists also showed that Homo floresiensis were good hunters, toolmakers, and butchers.

Cave where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003, Lian Bua, Flores, Indonesia.

Cave where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003, Lian Bua, Flores, Indonesia. (CC BY SA 2.0)

The remains of the nine Homo floresiensis are dated from 95,000 to 15,000 years old. According to the Smithsonian's Human Origins website, the individuals stood approximately 3 feet 6 inches (1.07meters) tall, weighed about 25 kilos (55 pounds), and had small brains with large teeth. They also had shrugged-forward shoulders, no chins, receding foreheads, and relatively large feet compared to their short legs. Dr. Matthew Tocheri, shares the point of view that the diminutive stature and their small brain may have been a result of island dwarfism—an evolutionary process that results from long-term isolation on a small island with limited food resources and a lack of predators. Apart from the Homo floresiensis, researchers discovered on Flores the skeleton of a pygmy elephant, which supports the dwarfism of the people as well.

The biggest controversy connected with this mysterious species is linked to their brains. The size of Homo floresiensis brains was certainly small, however, they cannot be considered as more primitive than Homo erectus. According to Rick Potts, the director of the Smithsonian's Human Origins Program,"Flores was this wing in the building of human evolution that we didn't know about. There is no reason that 800,000 years of experimentation could not evolve a small but advanced brain."

Another interesting factor of the Homo floresiensis is that when the researchers of the Smithsonian analyzed the Hobbits’ wrists, they found a primitive, wedge-shaped trapezoid bone common to great apes and early hominids but not to Neanderthals and modern humans.

Although, Homo floresiensis were unveiled to the world on October 28, 2004, they still hold many secrets. They were nicknamed Hobbits after the fictional race popularized in J. R. R. Tolkien's books, but continue to be one of the most serious scientific problems of our times.

Featured image: A model of a female Homo floresiensis. Source: John Gurche, National Museum of Natural History, CC BY-SA

By Natalia Klimczak



Good to walk back to the ancient

An anthropologist once made an interesting point. He said all these remains classed as early human can't possibly all be our ancestors, because although we must have a few ancestral strands we can't possibly have a dozen or more. Some must be ancestors of apes like gorillas and orangutang, or of other great ape species which didn't make it, or the ancestors of sub-species of humans which didn't make it either.


Natalia Klimczak is an historian, journalist and writer and is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the Faculty of Languages, University of Gdansk. Natalia does research in Narratology, Historiography, History of Galicia (Spain) and Ancient History of Egypt, Rome and Celts. She... Read More

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