At one point in time, Homo sapiens – that is, the group of great apes that includes you and me, but not, say, a chimpanzee or an orangutan – was just one of many species in the genus. As recently as a couple hundred thousand years ago, a world tour of humanity would reveal not only H. sapiens, but Neanderthals and H. antecessor in Europe, Denisovans in Asia, H. naledi in South Africa, and even a few H. erectus still hanging on here and there.
And, on the island of Flores, in Indonesia, there were hobbits.
Are there still “hobbits” on Flores Island?
So nicknamed by their discoverers after the diminutive second-breakfast fans of Tolkien, Homo floresiensis, as the species was eventually dubbed, was humanity in miniature. Standing at an estimated 106cm tall, or 3 foot 6, the skeletons recovered from the island are much shorter than even the tiniest of modern human populations; they had tiny brains, even taking into account their small stature, no chin, and, true to their Baggins-based moniker, unusually large, flat feet.
Like every species of human without sapiens in its name, H. floresiensis eventually died out – almost certainly at the hands of our own ancestors. But what initially caught researchers’ attention was just how recently that appeared to have happened: when the first example of the hominin was discovered in 2004, it was thought to date from just 12,000 years ago.
To put that in perspective, it’s recent enough that humans were already palling about with pet dogs, farming sheep, pigs, and goats, and we weren’t far off inventing religion. In evolutionary terms, it’s basically yesterday.
Now, subsequent analyses have moved that estimate back significantly: these days, most experts agree that the “hobbits” were likely extinct at least 50,000 years ago. But Gregory Forth is not most experts – and, in 2022, he made waves in anthropological circles with the incredible claim that H. floresiensis might, in fact, still be out there.
“Our initial instinct, I suspect, is to regard the extant ape-men of Flores as completely imaginary,” Forth wrote in an opinion piece for The Scientist last year. “But, taking seriously what Lio people say, I’ve found no good reason to think so.”
According to the Lio, one of the local indigenous tribes that live on the island, their homeland is also the habitat of a strange creature as yet unknown to Western science. Somewhere between animal and human, it is “something I can only call an ape-man,” Forth said.
“They stress that it resembles humans in so far as it stands upright, and it walks bipedally,” he told The Debrief in February this year. “Also, in two of the three cases, the specimen was dead, so people were able to approach it and get a close look.”
“Local people regard these things as real,” he said. “And at the same time, they find them quite uncanny.”
And from all this, he concluded in The Scientist, “the best explanation – that is, the most rational and empirically best supported – of Lio accounts of the creatures… is that a non-sapiens hominin has survived on Flores to the present or very recent times.”
The case against hobbits
While there are many good reasons to take indigenous knowledge more seriously than we frequently do in scientific circles, Forth’s ideas have not exactly proved convincing in paleoanthropological circles.
“I would be one of the most excited people in the world if Homo floresiensis is still around,” said Matthew Tocheri of the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program, whose research focuses on the evolutionary history and functional form of the human and great ape family, in a recent Popular Mechanics article.
“But I wouldn’t waste my professional resources in a search,” he added. “It’s incredibly, abysmally unlikely that they’re still around.”
Why is that? It comes down to a concept called the minimum viable population – basically, the number of individuals needed in a population to keep a species afloat and successful. And, to put it bluntly, there’s little chance that a group of H. floresiensis could be both large enough to survive until the modern era, and also small enough to have evaded notice to all but a handful of Lio tribespeople.
“Let's do the maths,” wrote Corey Bradshaw, the Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology at Flinders University, in a 2018 article for The Conversation. “Fifty effective individuals – the IUCN standard for avoiding inbreeding – equals a total population of 250 to 500.”
“However, to retain evolutionary potential – to remain genetically flexible and diverse – the IUCN criteria suggest we would need at least 500 effective individuals,” he continued. “That requires a population of 2,500 to 5,000.”
And yet, despite generations of these thousands of hypothetical hobbits, Forth counts “more than 30 eyewitnesses” who reported seeing the potential H. floresiensis. That’s not a lot of sightings. Neither does Forth note any encounters with, say, hobbit poop or leftovers from meals – even though these are usually pretty noticeable clues with other similarly-sized species.
What’s the explanation?
To Tocheri, a more plausible explanation for the rumors of “ape men” on Flores Island is one which is, to be honest, pretty relatable: he thinks it may be similar to the tales of Bigfoot or Sasquatch that are so familiar to North American culture. Alternatively, it may be a case of mistaken identity – maybe the Lio witnesses are seeing some other primate and mistaking it for some “ape man,” he suggested to Popular Mechanics.
Still, Forth doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of a still-surviving population of hobbits on Flores island. Such a discovery “would be extraordinary,” he told Popular Mechanics. “Not only would it contradict the current orthodoxy; it would also overturn current theories of hominin evolution and raise questions about what it means to be ‘human’ – or ‘not quite human.’”
And we’ll give him this: as unlikely as it is that we’re not the only species of human out there, it’s not like we can prove him wrong.
“How can you prove something doesn’t exist?” Tocheri lamented. “You can’t.”