When the fossils of diminutive humans from the island of Flores in Indonesia first came to light in 2003, they took the world by storm. Standing just 1.1 meters (3.6 feet) tall, they were quickly nicknamed “hobbits,” and completely altered everything we thought we knew about human evolution. But were these remains from a dwarf species of ancient human, or were they perhaps simply examples of humans displaying symptoms of extreme down syndrome or microcephaly?
With little other evidence of ancient hominins on Flores, it was impossible to draw any definitive conclusions – until now. Researchers have announced the discovery and analysis of another set of hominin fossils from the island that date to 700,000 years old, and crucially, are also from miniature humans. This indicates that the tiny hominins, known as Homo floresiensis, have a long evolutionary history, and that they gained their diminutive stature not long after arriving on the island.
The fragment of jaw from the Homo floresiensis-like hominin dated to 700,000 years old. Kinez Riza
The new fossils were discovered in 2014 in a place known as Mata Menge, around 70 kilometers (44 miles) away from where the original Homo floresiensis fossils were excavated in Liang Bua cave. This is important, as it shows that the fossils found in Liang Bua were not an isolated example, but are seemingly from a long history of occupation of Flores. The new discoveries have been described in two Nature papers, one describing the fossils and a second documenting their dating.
But the researchers are cautious about claiming anything definitive about how the two sets of fossils relate. “Based on the material we have, our working hypothesis is that this is a Homo floresiensis-like hominin,” explains Adam Brumm, co-author of the paper in Nature that dates the fossils to 700,000 years old. “We stop short of saying that it is Homo floresiensis, we prefer to hold judgement at this stage until we have found more complete material.” So far, the new discovery consists of a fragment of jaw and six teeth from at least three individuals, including children.
What the fossils can conclude, however, is highly significant. By looking at the morphology of the teeth, the researchers have been able to determine that the Flores hobbits are most likely to have descended from another ancient human species that was once common in Asia, Homo erectus. This has profound implications for us as a species, suggesting that our evolution is much more varied than we had dared to think. “The evidence on Flores suggests that the evolution of our genus is not necessarily unidirectional,” explains Yousuke Kaifu, who analyzed the fossils. “Human diversity could have been far greater than we have ever realized.”
The researchers now want to continue excavations at the site, in the search for more fossils. “We’ve only just scratched the surface of this layer,” says Brumm. “But we’re confident that we’re going to find more material, and I believe that before too long we’ll be in the position to make a more definitive conclusion about the taxonomy about this hominid. But so far, we’re putting our money on the fact that this is a very early example of Homo floresiensis.”
Image in text: A reconstruction of what H. floresiensis, or the "hobbit" people, would have looked like. Atelier Elisabeth Daynes/Kinez Riza