The Hobbits Were Related To Early Human Species Known Only From Africa

Dr Debbie Argue with a reconstruction of a hobbit skull. Dr Stuart Hay/ANU

When a new species of humanity was found on the Indonesian island of Flores, it was thought to probably be a descendent of Homo Erectus that had experienced island dwarfism. New evidence, however, links Homo floresiensis, widely known as hobbits, to Homo habilis, a much more primitive member of the human family. While this resolves some mysteries, it makes the question of how the hobbits reached Flores even more puzzling. The ancestors of the real hobbits went on a journey far longer, and possibly more intimidating, than from The Shire to Mordor.

Attempts to place the hobbits on the family tree, aside from those by researchers convinced they were Homo Sapiens with a genetic disease, have usually focused on finding the best match for the skull and lower jaw. Although these are arguably the most distinctive features, such studies are necessarily incomplete, so Professor Colin Groves and Dr Debbi Argue of the Australian National University went much broader, using 133 data points across the body. By comparing the size and shape of these parts of the anatomy, the authors revealed a far closer resemblance to Homo habilis than Homo erectus.

“We looked at whether Homo floresiensis could be descended from Homo erectus,” Argue said in a statement. “We found that if you try and link them on the family tree, you get a very unsupported result. All the tests say it doesn’t fit – it’s just not a viable theory.”

Argue and Groves published their findings in the Journal of Human Evolution.

“The analyses show that on the family tree, Homo floresiensis was likely a sister species of Homo habilis. It means these two shared a common ancestor,” Argue added. “It’s possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere.”

Groves told IFLScience that an alternative theory – the hobbits were in fact not members of the human genus at all, but related to the even earlier ancestor Australopithecus – could not be ruled out. “They'd probably got beyond the Australopithocene stage, but really they are at the same sort of primitive level,” Groves said.

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