New evidence from Liang Bua has revealed the use of fire up to 41,000 years ago. If, as expected, the fire-wielders were modern humans, this is not only significant for our understanding of human expansion through Southeast Asia, but also reduces the time between when humans and hobbits occupied the same cave, suggesting they may have encountered each other.
In 2004, when the very short species Homo floresiensis was first identified on the Indonesian island of Flores, the bones were thought to be 18,000 years old, a time when Homo sapiens were widespread throughout the region and may well have been present on Flores.
This year, a more accurate study shifted the dating of the so-called hobbit occupation back to between 190,000 and 50,000 years ago, making it seem less likely they ever met our ancestors.
Dr Mike Morley of the University of Wollongong has put such a meeting back on the agenda with the discovery of traces of fire 41,000 to 24,000 years ago at Liang Bua.
Dr Mike Morley holding one of the slides that reveals evidence of the use of fire at Liang Bua. Paul Jones/University of Wollongong
So far, we have seen no signs that hobbits knew how to use fire over the 130,000 years they appear to have occupied the island. Instead, in a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Morely proposes that the fire was used to warm members of our own species. "Modern humans arrived in Southeast Asia and Australia at least 50,000 years ago, and most likely quite a bit earlier," Morley said in a statement.
Nevertheless, this is the first evidence of modern humans on Flores at this point in time. "This new evidence, which is some of the earliest evidence of modern human activity in Southeast Asia, narrows the gap between the two hominin species at the site," Morley said.
"There is still a large volume of sediment at the site (Liang Bua) that has yet to be excavated, and which we will be working on over the next coming years," Morley told IFLScience. "There may well be evidence that hobbits were present at the site after 50,000 years ago, and there may be evidence of modern humans at the site earlier than 41,000 years ago. At present, though, those are the latest hobbit dates and earliest modern human dates we have. With archaeology you only get snapshots because we can’t dig up everything."
Romantic as it might be to imagine our ancestors happily interacting with hobbits, it is disturbingly likely our arrival at Flores precipitated their demise, either through direct killing or competition for resources.
On a brighter note, Morely thinks the discovery of fire at Liang Bua will help us understand the humans of the region. "Finding the fire places in such an excellent state of preservation allows insights into the behavior of these people," he said.
For a decade after the discovery of the hobbits, progress in understanding them was slow. Access to the original fossils, and to the Liang Bua site, was restricted because of conflict between anthropologists. At the same time, debate raged over whether the discovery really represented a new species, or was a just a Homo sapien with a genetic condition.
This year, however, a flood of new evidence about the history of human habitation on Flores has emerged, including the identification of the hobbits' even smaller ancestors and better dating of the original fossils.