Chomping Away at Human Evolution: The Hobbit Bite of Homo Floresiensis
Back in 2003 a team of archaeologists excavated some skeletal remains on the island of Flores in Indonesia within the Liang Bua cave. Little did they know that their discovery would be the start of decades of scientific debate and the designation of a new species, Homo floresiensis (a.k.a. the Hobbit). Professional obsession with where exactly they belong within human evolution has inspired a new study of the Hobbit’s chewing mechanics led by Duke University.
The dig site at Lian Bua Cave on Flores in Indonesia. (Rosino / CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Discovery of Homo Floresiensis, the Hobbit
The original discovery consisted in the skeletal remains of an almost complete female individual, dubbed LB-1, within the Liang Bua cave on Flores. The Australian-Indonesian team was looking for evidence of human migration from Asia to Australia, but what they actually found was something completely different.
What made LB-1 so special was its particular combination of unique features, from its small brain (about a third of that of a modern human) and body (just 3.5 feet, or 1.06 meters, tall), a robust mandible, as well as bones and joints resembling those of chimps and Australopithecus.
Screenshot from a computer simulation of Homo floresiensis (a.k.a. the Hobbit) cranium during biting. (Ledogar lab / Duke University)
It was so small in fact, that at first glance it could be mistaken for a child. Meanwhile, the skull of LB-1 had a small and delicate face more like that of a modern-day human, explains the Duke University report. This so-called Hobbit used stone tools and hunted animals. The new species was named after the island where the remains were unearthed, hence Homo floresiensis.
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Archaeologists have since unearthed the remains of several more members of the Homo floresiensis species at the same cave site, as well as stone tools. The individuals in question are estimated to have existed on the island between 100,000 to 60,000 years ago. According to an article on Ancient Origins, it “may have been the latest surviving human species, aside from our own.” The original discovery was called “the most important find in human evolution in 100 years.”
Facial reconstruction of the LB-1 individual member of Homo floresiensis. (Cicero Moraes et alii / CC BY 4.0)
Debate Surrounding Homo Floresiensis: The Great Mystery of the Hobbit
Scientists are still trying to answer some basic questions in order to understand how exactly Homo floresiensis fits into the genealogical tree of human evolution. According to the Smithsonian, “most scientists now recognize H. floresiensis as a valid taxon and a human species distinct from Homo sapiens (modern humans).” Many believe that Homo floresiensis descended from Homo erectus, and was probably a sister species of Homo habilis. This could mean that these remains are proof of an earlier and previously unknown migration from Africa to Asia.
However there has been a great deal of debate and research trying to prove a variety of hypotheses on the subject. Some have posited that the Hobbit attained its small size through disease or some kind of growth disorder such as dwarfism, Down Syndrome or even microcephaly. National Geographic reported on a 2018 study looking for traces of H. floresiensis in the modern pygmy genome.
There has even been conflict over its nickname. At just over 3 feet (1 meter), Homo floresiensis was given the nickname “the Hobbit”, connecting the find to the literary character from The Lord of the Rings. In 2012 3 News NZ reported that the Tolkien Estate had refused a request by a New Zealand scientist to use the word “Hobbit” when promoting a lecture on the subject.
Strain distribution maps during biting simulations of chimpanzees (a to f) and a sample of modern humans and extinct species. (Interface Focus / CC BY 4.0)
Latest Study of the Hobbit Bite in Digital Crash Test
The recent Duke University study published in Interface Focus has focused on understanding the “chewing mechanics” of Homo floresiensis. In other words, “researchers wanted to understand how the Hobbit’s skull behaved while it ate its food,” explained the press release published by Duke University.
The only H. floresiensis skull discovered to date was found in less than perfect condition. This meant that a 3D virtual model had to be built using x-ray CT scans at the University of Bologna in Italy. In the process they filled in the gaps digitally to create a full skull.
They then used cutting-edge computer technology to understand how the Hobbit skull would have worked for biting, analyzing the premolars and molars at work, in what Duke University termed a “digital crash test.” They compared the Hobbits biting and chewing to that of modern humans and other extinct homo relatives.
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The results appear to show that the Hobbit’s bite was closer to that of modern humans than to its earlier and extinct hominid relatives. “Millions of years of human evolution gave us smaller teeth and more lightweight skulls, because cooking our food and slicing and pounding it with stone tools, and probably also eating meat, made having over-built skulls unnecessary,” explains Duke University.
The team now hopes to do the same analysis on earlier members of the Homo genus, such as Homo erectus, as well as doing studies on dental topography, enamel isotopes and patterns of macro-wear. “The work could help answer lingering questions about where Homo floresiensis came from, how it lived and how it fits into the human evolutionary tree.” The recent study suggests that “weaker bites and achy jaws evolved early, before the common ancestors of Homo floresiensis and modern humans went their separate ways.”
Top image: The Homo floresiensis skull discovered at the Liang Bua Cave. Source: Gerdie / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard