If you haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings, it’s probably wise to stop whatever you’re doing now and binge watch the trilogy. If you have seen it, you might be pleased that scientists have discovered new evidence that hints that the extinct human species nicknamed “hobbits” may have lived on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
The scientists hope that this finding could help unearth important information on the evolution of the hobbit, they noted in a letter to Nature.
The “hobbit,” scientifically named Homo floresiensis, earned its nickname because of its unusually small stature of about 3 feet tall (1 meter). Back in 2003, scientists found 18,000-year-old fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores which belonged to an unknown hominin, or close relative of modern humans. Determining that this hominin was in fact the hobbit, the scientists were able to estimate that the mini-humans had brains about the size of a grapefruit!
The scientists also found stone tools on Flores that suggest the hobbit’s ancestors inhabited the island about 1 million years ago.
In order to learn more about the evolutionary origins of the hobbit, the scientists decided to explore other Indonesian islands in search of clues. They zeroed in on the island of Sulawesi, which lies between Flores and continental Asia, and north of Flores and Australia. Due to its location, the researchers say Sulawesi likely played a key role in the settling of both islands.
The island of Sulawesi unearthed an interesting new piece of the puzzle. The researchers discovered stone tools dating back at least 118,000 years, suggesting that an unknown lineage of toolmakers lived there long ago.
"There might have been a totally different human species living on Sulawesi before modern humans arrived with boats around 50,000 years ago,” said study lead author Gerrit van den Bergh, a paleontologist and zooarchaeologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia. "Evolving under isolation on an island under hundreds of thousands of years in isolation, the outcome may have resulted in a distinct human species, different from Homo erectus or Homo floresiensis.”
Between 2007 and 2012, excavations in southeastern Sulawesi discovered stone flakes in four different sites. The stone flakes, or sharp artifacts that were likely used for cutting or scraping, date back anywhere between 118,000 to 194,000 years, according to the researchers. This makes these stone flakes the earliest signs of hominins found on Sulawesi so far.
The identity of the newfound stone tools on Sulawesi remains uncertain, but the scientists highlight three potential candidates: hobbits, Homo erectus, and the Denisovans — close relatives of Neanderthals that may have interbred with modern humans.
Scientists know that Homo sapiens, modern humans, lived on the island of Sulawesi at least 40,000 years ago from previous analysis of rock art on the island. Therefore, the new stone tool findings had to belong to an unknown lineage of hominins pre-dating the arrival of modern humans. They hope to find more undiscovered evidence of ancient hominins on other nearby islands in the region, like the Philippines and Borneo.
"Now, we can start trying to find fossil evidence of the makers of these ancient tools," van den Bergh said in an interview with Live Science.
Not only could future findings lead to unraveling the mystery of the hobbit’s origin, but it could help solve the evolutionary mysteries of Indonesia at large.