Why the Fossil 'Hobbit' of Flores Isn't so Strange

A clue to how the diminutive humanoid Homo floresiensis evolved can be found in its unique surroundings -- the fossils of Flores, and the island itself.

A dwarf-ed, human-like skeleton was discovered in 2004 deep inside Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. Was it a diseased human? A child?

Further examination of the bones revealed that they were not recent, nor human exactly. Archaeologists famously declared the skeleton a new human ancestor, Homo floresiensis, whose striking similarities to Frodo Baggins earned it the nickname the "hobbit."

But researchers continue to disagree over where exactly this new species fits on the human family tree. A new study in the Journal of Biogeography led by Hanneke Meijer of the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis, provides an answer.

The archaeological record shows that a known human ancestor, Homo erectus, arrived in Flores in the Middle Pleistocene, sometime between 781,000 and 126,000 years ago. Homo floresiensis did not appear until the Late Pleistocene, between 126,000 and 12,000 years ago.

Meijer believes that after eons of isolation on the island, Homo erectus evolved into the hobbit. But many archaeologists reject the idea that Homo floresiensis, a small-bodied and small-brained human relative, evolved from the taller, large-brained Homo erectus. After all, why would a clearly successful evolutionary trend of developing larger brains suddenly reverse itself?

Meijer suggests the key to understanding the hobbit is to narrow one's gaze only to the island. On Flores, the fossil record shows the other island residents, including reptiles and mammals, all experienced either dwarfism or gigantism.

In fact, there are numerous cases of animals on isolated islands undergoing dramatic changes in body size due to alterations in predation and food resources.

Instead of viewing it as a step backwards, archaeologists should view it as a laudable display of evolutionary adaptation. Gandalf bestowed the burden of the One Ring on Frodo, a hobbit. Why? Because men were too easily corrupted by its power; they would certainly destroy themselves lusting after it.

Like Homo floresiensis surviving on Flores, hobbits - and not men - were simply better suited to the task.

Image: Ryan Somma, Wikipedia