Who Were The Mysterious "Hobbit" People?

The people are thought to have survived as recently as 12,000 years ago. Karen Neoh/Flickr CC By 2.0

When reports in 2003 came in that researchers had discovered the remains of adult humans that stood just one meter (3.2 feet) tall on the Indonesian island of Flores, it took the world by storm. Dubbed the “hobbit” people, these tiny individuals were ruled out as adolescents due to their fully fused bones, but debate in some circles has continued to rage about whether or not they were indeed a different species of human, or simply modern humans deformed by disease.

A new study, however, claims to have the definitive answer. By examining the layers of bone in the most complete hobbit skull and comparing it to modern humans, they found that the tiny people were sufficiently different to be another species, and that there was no evidence their height was the result of major disease. The researchers say their work shows that the diminutive people were not Homo sapiens, but stress that they could not say whether or not they deserve separate species status as Homo floresiensis, or were instead a miniature form of Homo erectus – another ancient human living around Asia at the time.  

The skull of one of the seven skeletons found in the cave on the island of Flores. Ryan Somma/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2003, news spread that the bones of “real life” hobbits had been discovered on the island of Flores in a cave known as Liang Bua. In total, researchers found seven nearly complete skeletons, along with stone tools that were of proportional size to the little people, but what shocked researchers the most was the age of these finds. They were found in sediment layers that dated from between 95,000 and 13,000 years old. With modern humans having reached the Indonesia archipelago around 45,000 years ago, the implication was that the two people could well have met.

Yet the discovery raised a whole bunch of other questions. The main one focused around whether or not the miniature humans were actually descended from us after all, or simply displayed a genetic disease that had become dominant in an isolated population. One of the theories given to explain their size was that the group displayed endemic cretinism, a type of dwarfism that can be caused by a lack of iodine, which results in those who are left untreated to grow to just over a meter tall. Another explanation suggested that they were the result of microcephaly, which explained their brain size being much smaller than modern humans.

But it seems that neither of these versions are backed up by the analysis of the scaled-down peoples' skulls. The study, to be published in the Journal of Human Evolution, instead supports the idea that they were probably the result of insular dwarfism, in which large species that are trapped on islands shrink in size.

The researchers note that while they can be confident the little people were not decedent from Homo sapiens, they cannot make the same conclusions about their relationship to Homo erectus, who were also living in the same region at the time.  

Main image: Karen Neoh/Flickr CC BY 2.0

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