Teeth Suggest Humans Killed Hobbits
Human teeth found in a hobbit cave appear to implicate our species in the disappearance of Homo floresiensis.
Photo: Recreation of a Homo floresiensis male. Credit: Cicero Moraes et al., Wikimedia Commons Humans were on hobbit turf at around the same time that the small people (Homo floresiensis) seemingly disappeared from Earth, according to new evidence presented this week in Madrid at the European Society for the Study of Human Evolution.
The evidence -- a pair of 46,000-year-old human teeth -- is described in a Nature report. The teeth were discovered at the former hobbit homeland, Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia.
Earlier research determined that members of our species were living in southeast Asia by around 50,000 years ago. Around this time in Liang Bua, H. floresiensis -- and animals including giant storks, pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons -- disappeared. Scientists began to suspect that Homo floresiensis was not a stranger to Homo sapiens.
This possibility was deemed a "smoking gun" by Bert Roberts of the University of Wollongong earlier this year, but he had not yet found the "bullet" linking the two human groups.
"The exact cause of the demise of the hominids and associated animals is not yet understood, but in my view, may be related to the appearance in the area of the most aggressive of all hominin species, Homo sapiens, modern humans," said Donald Johanson, founding director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University.
The 46,000-year-old human teeth, consisting of an upper premolar and a lower molar, support Johanson's view. Roberts, archaeologist Thomas Sutikna and their team found the teeth while excavating the hobbit cave.
The researchers also found freshwater mollusk shells, which are commonly associated with early Homo sapiens sites in Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia. Stone tools made from a hard rock known as chert were additionally unearthed, as was evidence for fire hearths. All are typical of early human settlements.
Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, was at the Madrid meeting and attended the presentation about the tooth finds.
"What we don't yet know is whether there was at least a short overlap in the populations, thus raising the question once again of the possible role of modern humans in the extinction of floresiensis," he said.
Stringer mentioned that if the two populations did overlap, they might have interbred, as humans did with Neanderthals. People of European and Asian heritage today retain Neanderthal DNA.
The researchers hope to learn more when they return to Liang Bua in April to excavate cave deposits between 46,000 and 50,000 years old.
SEE PHOTOS: Hobbits Vanish When Modern Humans Appear
style="text-align: left;">Hobbit humans, giant storks, pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons all suddenly disappeared from a cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia, around 50,000 years ago, new research finds.
style="text-align: left;">Did our species do them in?
style="text-align: left;">In this depiction, so-called hobbit humans inhabit the lush world of the Indonesian island of Flores.
style="text-align: left;">Adult Hobbits (Homo floresiensis) only stood about 3.5 feet tall. New research determined that these diminutive humans vanished from a cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia, around 50,000 years ago.
style="text-align: left;">The latest excavations at Liang Bua limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores show that the Hobbits, as well as many other animals, disappeared 38,000 years earlier than thought. Their disappearance coincides with the time that our species first arrived in the region.
style="text-align: left;">While our species is suspect, there are other possible explanations for the demise of Hobbit humans. One is the tiny elephant relative, pygmy Stegodon, might have been hunted to death, leading to a devastating chain reaction.
style="text-align: left;">Big climate shifts and volcano eruptions could have also doomed the hobbits. Here is a view of Liang Bua cave, as seen from the road out front.
style="text-align: left;">Earlier confusion about when the Hobbits and associated animals died out at Flores had to do with the depth and complexity of the cave site's geological layers. Archaeological excavations at Liang Bua can reach depths of more than 8 meters (26 feet), as shown in this photo.
style="text-align: left;">Shown is a Homo sapiens skull (left) next to Homo floresiensis skull (right). Did our species kill off the Hobbits? Or did we interbreed and incorporate Hobbit human DNA in their genes? Scientists are still looking for the answers.