A study titled "Earliest hominin occupation of Sulawesi, Indonesia" published in the journal Nature on Jan. 13 reveals that the stone tools excavated two kilometers east of Talepu in Sulawesi Island, Indonesia can be dated to between 118,000 to 194,000 years ago.
This dates the tools to around the time of the Homo Floresiensis, a hominid species dubbed as "hobbits" roughly three and a half feet tall.
The study was published by Gerrit D. van den Bergh from the University of Wollongong (UOW) in Australia and his team of archaeologists. It includes the findings of archaeologist Michael Morwood, also from UOW, who passed away in 2013. The findings and successful dating of the tools lead to the question of whether the Homo floresiensis were the makers and users of the tools or if there were other hobbit-like hominids that inhabited other parts of the island.
The team is looking into the possibility of other dwarfish humanoid species existing in isolation at around the same time as the Homo floresiensis instead of giving the full credit to the hobbits. The paper listed early members of modern humans, homo floresiensis, homo erectus and Denisovans as the possible early toolmakers and users in Sulawesi. Van den Bergh, however, is betting on homo erectus as the toolmakers since they are found in other parts of South East Asia.
"We now have direct evidence that when modern humans arrived on Sulawesi, supposedly between 60,000 and 50,000 years ago and aided by watercraft, they must have encountered an archaic group of humans that was already present on the island long before," van den Bergh said.
The "hobbits" of Indonesia were most likely closest in appearance to J.R.R. Tolkien's Harfoots hobbits who had brown skin, smaller build and shorter height, but closer in lifestyle to the Stoors hobbits who preferred flat lands and riversides, considering the tools were excavated near the Walanae River at Paroto.
"Like on Flores, where Homo floresiensis evolved under isolated conditions over a period of almost 1 million years, Sulawesi could also have harbored an isolated human lineage. And the search for fossil remains of the Talepu toolmaker is now open," van der Bergh added.
So what does this mean for the history of human habitation? Researchers believe that early hominin may have reached the shores of Australia by going through Sulawesi some 50,000 years ago. In addition, they also supposed that the size of homo floresiensis is an evolutionary trait that occurred due to scarcity of food sources in the island.
The hypothesis backs the idea that the hobbits descended from a smaller stature pre-homo erectus hominin since no test supports that idea that homo floresiensis descended from homo erectus. Furthermore, it supports the idea that the homo erectus is not the first hominin species that migrated out of Africa. As to how they reached the Sulawesi island, van den Bergh could only surmise that a tsunami had something to do with it. That is, the inhabitants were washed up on the shores of Sulawesi after a tsunami carried them away.
For now, archaeologists can only hypothesize on which hominin specie really made the tools but, so far, the biggest bet is still on homo erectus.