History

Origins of Mysterious Indonesian ‘Hobbits’ Revealed

A detailed comparison of bones and teeth from Homo floresiensis rules out a close link to human ancestors.

A new study debunks the idea that a diminutive early human species knick-named the “hobbits” of Indonesia were closely linked to an ancestor of modern humans.

The findings may finally resolve a debate that has raged in anthropological circles ever since the three-and-a-half-feet tall Homo floresiensis was discovered in 2003 on the island of Flores, where they are thought to have hunted small elephants and large rodents as recently as 54,000 years ago.

According to one prevailing but contentious theory, the hobbits descended from the larger Homo erectus, the first hominid to have modern human proportions, whose remains can be found on the nearby Indonesian island of Java.

According to that version, H. erectus traveled to the island of Flores and then shrank over thousands of years through a process called “insular dwarfing.” Some suggested a lack of food in their new environment meant that larger bodies, requiring more sustenance, had less chance of survival.

But the new study finds no evidence for a close connection between the hobbits and H. erectus — and rules out the possibility that H. floresiensis might have really just been a deformed Homo sapiens.

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Debbie Argue of the Australian National University conducted an exhaustive study comparing 133 data points from the skull, jaws, teeth, arms, legs, and shoulders — whereas previous research has focused mostly on the skull and lower jaw — and found no evidence for a close link to H. erectus.

"We looked at whether Homo floresiensis could be descended from Homo erectus," Argue said. “All the tests say it doesn't fit. It’s just not a viable theory.”

The most likely case is that the Indonesian hobbits split off from another early hominid much earlier, and may be closely linked to Homo habilis, which lived in Africa 1.75 million years ago as one of the earliest species of human.

"It's possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere,” Argue said. "If this were the case, Homo floresiensis would have evolved before the earliest Homo habilis, which would make it very archaic indeed.”

Argue said many features of the Indonesian hobbit’s features, such as the structure of the jaw, were more primitive than H. erectus.

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