Modern Humans May Have Caused The Extinction Of Real 'Hobbits'

Watch how scientists use 3D imaging to examine when -- and why -- this ancient hominin species became extinct.

03/04/2016 12:52 AM AEDT | Updated 04/04/2016 2:54 AM AEST
Smithsonian Digitization Program Office
A reconstruction sculpture of a "hobbit" head. The species, Homo floresiensis, is an extinct human relative from the Liang Bua cave on Indonesia's Flores Island.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a mysterious human "hobbit" species once thrived. They sustained themselves off fauna, and even slew dragons -- well, Komodos.

It sounds like a science fiction novel, but these diminutive beings actually lived in Indonesia. They possibly even interacted with modern humans, according to researchers, who spent nearly a decade conducting lengthy excavations at Liang Bua cave to uncover evidence of the "hobbits" of Flores Island, whose scientific name is Homo floresiensis.

The new research, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, readjusts the timeline of when "hobbits" died out as a species -- pushing the date back from as recently as 12,000 years ago to a more likely 50,000 years ago. If true, that would mean H. floresiensis might have had contact with modern humans, who would have traveled through the Indonesian islands en route to Australia.

"We don't know for sure, because we don't have evidence of them on the island before 11,000 years ago," Research co-author Dr. Matthew Tocheri, a paleoanthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, told The Huffington Post.

"We know that modern humans reached Australia about 50,000 years ago, and you can't get there unless you go across these Indonesian islands," he said.

"Up until now, this has been a persistent issue in archaeology in this region. We're just missing the evidence that we haven't discovered the sites that show exactly how modern humans navigated these islands to ultimately reach Australia, and Flores is one of them."

Peter Brown/University of New England/PA Archive
A University of New England image of a hobbit skull shows how much smaller it was compared to a human skull.

The recent research involved a new analysis of old fossilized "hobbit" bones that were previously unearthed in the Liang Bua cave.

Based on new-found stratigraphic and chronological evidence, the researchers concluded that those skeletal remains may be between 100,000 and 60 ,000 years old. 

The researchers noted that whether H. floresiensis survived after 50,000 years ago is an "open question."

Liang Bua Team - Smithsonian
Looking remarkably like a Hollywood set design, this is the impressive Liang Bua cave in Flores Island, Indonesia.

"We dated charcoal, sediments, flowstones, volcanic ash and even the H. floresiensis bones themselves using the most up-to-date scientific methods available," said research co-author Dr. Richard Roberts, a professor at the University of Wollongong in Australia in a statement.

"In the last decade, we’ve vastly improved our understanding of when the deposits accumulated in Liang Bua, and what this means for the age of ‘hobbit’ bones and stone tools," he added. "But whether ‘hobbits’ encountered modern humans or other groups of humans -- such as the ‘Denisovans’ -- dispersing through Southeast Asia remains an open and intriguing question."

For now, the researchers are hoping to gather more insight into the secret lives of the "hobbits" by using 3D imaging in the Liang Bua cave to map out the entire excavation site. (Learn more in the video below.)

Archaeologists first discovered H. floresiensis in 2003, when they found fossilized skeletal remains of the species buried roughly 20 feet down in the Liang Bua cave.  The research team that made this discovery nicknamed the small skeleton the "hobbit," according to Tocheri.

"They were getting ready to publish in Nature and Mike Morwood, the lead archaeologist, started referring to it as the 'hobbit,' just amongst themselves because it was so small and so odd," Tocheri said. "At the same time, it was when 'The Lord of the Rings' movies were really big, especially in Australia and New Zealand. When the initial paper was first published, and they were doing a press conference, it just slipped out -- and it touched a nerve and caught on."

A skull and limb bones indicated that a fully grown adult H. floresiensis would have stood about 3.5 feet tall, and likely had an extremely small brain.

"We still know very little. In terms of their overall bodies, their brains are very small, essentially the same size as living chimpanzees," Tocheri said. "Over a third smaller than modern humans, but there seems to be parts of the brain that, even though it's so small, suggests that it was more reorganized. There's a debate over how much large brain size relates to intelligence."

University of Wollongong
The University of Wollongong's Dr. Richard Roberts and Dr. Thomas Sutikna, holding a copy of a Homo floresiensis skull. Sutikna oversaw the excavations on the Island of Flores.

Tocheri told HuffPost that this ongoing research is somewhat frustrating because the "hobbit" fossils tend to resemble those of earlier species in the human family tree that date back to 1-3 million years ago.

Nonetheless, finding H. floresiensis fossils in Indonesia sediments dating back to around 50,000 years ago suggests that there was an entire lineage of hominins that scientists may have essentially missed, from Africa, across Asia to the Indonesian island of Flores.

"I see it as our responsibility to document that diversity so that we better understand it and what it means for us to be human," Tocheri said.

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