The ancestors of modern man may have played a crucial role in pushing another group of early people known as Homo floresiensis to their eventual extinction, according to a new study featured in the journal Nature.
An international team of researchers is exploring the possibility that the ancient Homo floresiensis, which have been nicknamed the hobbits because of their diminutive size, may have met their demise as a direct consequence of Homo sapiens moving into their territory on the island of Flores in Indonesia.
Based on the age of Homo floresiensis bones recovered from caves on the island, the team believes that the hobbits likely disappeared some 50,000 years ago and not 12,000 years ago as what was initially thought.
While there is still no concrete evidence that the hobbits encountered Homo sapiens during their time, the researchers noted that the ancestors of modern man were already living on other islands around Flores, coinciding with the Homo floresiensis existence.
Bert Roberts, a geochronologist from the University of Wollongong in Australia and one of the authors of the study, said that there is a chance that Homo sapiens were a factor in the demise of the hobbits, and that they plan on exploring this particular issue.
How The Hobbits Were Discovered
Scientists first became aware of the existence of Homo floresiensis when they came across the remains of a hobbit in the Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores in 2003. The bones were found along with ancient stone tools and several animal remains.
This first specimen was believed to be from a 30-year-old female who stood at three and a half feet tall. It also weighed in at about 35 to 79 pounds. The remains were comprised of a skull and a skeleton.
Initial dating of the hobbit remains revealed that the owner may have lived somewhere between 17,000 and 74,000 years ago. However, the stone tools that were found along with the remains were dated to be between 12,000 and 95,000 years ago.
What The Hobbits Looked Like
The hobbit remains showed a distinct combination of ancestral features, which are physical traits that are shared with their ancestors, and derived features, which are physical traits that came about through evolution.
Analysis of the skulls of hobbits showed that they had flat, sloping foreheads and short, flat faces, traits that are closely associated with early Homo species. However, the teeth and jaws found on the skulls looked more like those on Australopithecus, which are considered to be Homo ancestors.
A closer examination of three wrist bones from the first female hobbit indicated that they resembled the wrist bones of apes more than those of modern humans. This suggested that Homo floresiensis belonged to a different species from modern man.
The hobbit remains also showed that they had smaller brains that closely resembled those of chimpanzees.
Some scientists believe that Homo floresiensis may have developed their small brain and diminutive stature as a result of island dwarfism. They likely went through this evolutionary process because of their long-term isolation on the island of Flores with limited sources of food and not having enough predators.
Island dwarfism can also be seen on the remains of pygmy elephants found on Flores.
However, other experts contend that the ancestors of the hobbits may have already been small long before they migrated to Flores.
How The Hobbits Survived
The stone tools and animal bones that paleoanthropologists recovered along with the Homo floresiensis remains suggest that these early humans may have survived on Flores by hunting local game, particularly an extinct species of elephant known as Stegodon.
While Stegodon were known to be some of the largest early elephant species that existed, the animals that lived on the island of Flores, known as Stegodon florensis insularis, were believed to have suffered from island dwarfism as well, much like the hobbits that hunted them.
Photo: Karen Neoh | Flickr