Ancient human known colloquially as the Hobbits lived long before researchers previously believed. New fossils recovered on the Indonesian island of Flores push back the era of these diminutive people to 700,000 years before our own time.
Homo floresiensis fossils discovered on the island include a handful of teeth and the fragmented right jaw bone of an adult specimen. The finds were made in 2014, and the specimens have been thoroughly examined since that time.
The archaic humans were first discovered in the Liang Bua cave, when researchers found the fossilized remains of one adult who stood roughly 42 inches in height, during a 2003 expedition. Currently, there are a total of 10 specimens, including a complete skull, known to investigators. This new finding represents the first remains to be found on Flores outside of that geological formation.
Homo floresiensis may have experienced from insular dwarfism, a phenomenon capable of shrinking the average body sizes of mammals living on tiny islands with limited food supplies. Some researchers studying the now-extinct creatures believe they may have developed from Homo erectus, although it is possible these hobbit-like individuals may have developed from groups of Homo habilis. Another theory holds that this group of ancient humans may not represent a separate species from our own, but may have been victims of a disease or disorder resulting in their short stature.
The new findings lend credence to the idea that Homo erectus were the ancestors of these short-statured people. The fossils suggest that a group of Homo erectus may have become trapped on Flores roughly 1 million years before the current day. Over a time period of 300,000 years, the average size of individuals in the group was reduced, leaving a diminutive population at the time when the individuals found in this recent find walked the land. How members of Homo erectus came to arrive on Flores remains a mystery. They only possessed the simplest tool-making abilities, being unable to construct boats.
"This find has important implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution in the region and quashes once and for all any doubters that believe Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human. Human diversity was far greater than we ever realized," said Gerrit van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong in Australia.
The hobbit people roamed Flores, alongside animals such as Komodo dragons and elephants. This group disappeared 50,000 years before our present time.
Analysis of the newly discovered fossils was detailed in the journal Nature.
Image: Karen Neoh | Flickr