In 2003, archaeologists looking for evidence of the migration of modern humans from Asia to Australia stumbled across a small, fairly complete skeleton of an extinct human species on the Indonesian island of Flores, which came to be known as Homo floresiensis. Or, as it became more commonly known, the Hobbit, after the small, breakfast-guzzling creatures from J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit.
The species was initially thought to have survived until relatively recently, around 12,000 years ago, before further analysis pushed that date back to around 50,000 years. But one retired professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta says that evidence that the species' continued existence may have been overlooked, and the Hobbit may still be alive today, or at least within living memory.
In an opinion piece for The Scientist promoting his upcoming book Between Ape and Human, Gregory Forth argues that palaeontologists and other scientists have overlooked Indigenous knowledge and accounts of an "ape-man" living in the forests of Flores.
“My aim in writing the book was to find the best explanation — that is, the most rational and empirically best supported — of Lio accounts of the creatures,” Forth wrote in the piece. “These include reports of sightings by more than 30 eyewitnesses, all of whom I spoke with directly. And I conclude that the best way to explain what they told me is that a non-sapiens hominin has survived on Flores to the present or very recent times.”
He writes that local folk zoology by the Lio people inhabiting the island contains stories of humans transforming into animals as they move and adapt to new environments, which he likens to a type of Lamarckism, the inheritance of acquired physical characteristics.
"As my fieldwork revealed, such posited changes reflect local observations of similarities and differences between a supposed ancestral species and its differentiated descendants," he says.
The Lio identify these creatures as animals, not having the complex language or technology that humans possess. However, their eerie similarity to humans is noted.
"For the Lio, the ape-man’s appearance as something incompletely human makes the creature anomalous and hence problematic and disturbing," Forth wrote.
For now, the closest we can definitively date H. floresiensis being alive is still 50,000 years ago. But Forth urges that Indigenous knowledge should be incorporated as we investigate hominin evolution.
"Our initial instinct, I suspect, is to regard the extant ape-men of Flores as completely imaginary. But, taking seriously what Lio people say, I’ve found no good reason to think so," he concludes. "What they say about the creatures, supplemented by other sorts of evidence, is fully consistent with a surviving hominin species, or one that only went extinct within the last 100 years."