History

700,000-Year-Old Tiny Humans Found at Hobbit Homeland

The newly found, tiny humans predate the Hobbits by more than half a million years.

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Remains of at least three tiny humans dating to 700,000 years ago have been found on the Indonesian island of Flores, which was the homeland of Homo floresiensis, aka "Hobbit Humans," according to two new papers in the journal Nature.

The newly found early humans, represented by a partial right jaw and some isolated teeth, predate the Hobbits by more than half a million years, the papers report. Their presence on the island suggests that the small individuals were part of a population that later gave rise to the Hobbits, whose fossils were previously discovered at Flores' Liang Bua cave.

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"We cannot be sure about their actual body size because we only have the mandible and teeth," Yousuke Kaifu, co-author of the first paper, told Discovery News, "but their sizes suggest that these 700,000-year-old hominins (early members of the genus Homo) were as small as Homo floresiensis from Liang Bua."

The Hobbits were about 3.3 feet tall.

Photo: Partial right jaw excavated on the island of Flores, Indonesia. Credit: Kinez Riza

Kaifu, an anthropologist at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Japan, along with lead author of the first paper Gerrit van den Bergh and their colleagues, analyzed the new remains. They were excavated from layers of sedimentary rock at a site called Mata Menge, located approximately 43.5 miles away from Liang Bua. The researchers believe that the fossils came from early Homo floresiensis and belonged to at least one adult and two children.

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When the Hobbit remains were first found in 2003, many scientists were completely baffled by the population's diminutive size. Some even thought that the individuals were members of our species who were pathologically dwarfed or diseased.

Van den Bergh, however, said that the latest discovery "quashes once and for all any doubters that believe Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human."

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The second paper, with research led by Adam Brumm of Griffith University and the University of Wollongong, describes the geology of Mata Menge and confirms that the Hobbit predecessors lived at least 700,000 years ago. It said that stone tools were also found at Flores and date to approximately 700,000 to 1 million years ago.

Taken together, all of the finds suggest that a population of small individuals lived perhaps continuously as a lineage on the island from about a million years ago to at least around 38,000–60,000 years ago. As for where they came from before settling on Flores, Kaifu suspects that "a large-bodied Homo erectus population got there and dwarfed on the island."

Photo: A model of the face of an adult female Homo erectus. Credit: Reconstruction by John Gurche; photographed by Tim Evanson

He added, "Rather than claiming that such extreme body and brain size dwarfism cannot occur (on a widespread scale), we now have accepted that that happened and can shift to the next question as to why that happened and on what mechanism."

Aida Gómez-Robles, a scientist at George Washington University specializing in human evolution, explained that one theory about the Hobbits says they shrunk in size by a process called island dwarfing. This refers to an extreme reduction in size due to the absence of predators and to resource scarcity that is typical of island ecosystems.

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When the Hobbit remains were first found, the researchers also discovered evidence for a pygmy elephant, suggesting that a pachyderm also underwent island dwarfing at Flores.

Gómez-Robles told Discovery News that the two new papers are important because "they demonstrate that the origin of Homo floresiensis is very old, which confirms that this is a totally valid species with old evolutionary roots."

This has two important implications.

"The first one is that the very small size that is characteristic of Homo floresiensis may have evolved over a very short period of time," she said. "The second one is that this small size has remained stable over a long period of time because more recent Homo floresiensis remains from the site of Liang Bua are very similar in size to the fossils from Mata Menge, which are the ones described in these new papers."

To this day, people from Indonesia tend to be smaller than other humans. It is possible that the Hobbits interbred with modern humans in the way that Neanderthals did, but more finds would be needed to figure out what happened to this still mysterious island population.

SEE PHOTOS: Faces of Our Ancestors

Recreation of a hobbit human next to a stork and elephant relative also known from the island of Flores.

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.