Hobbits' Ancestors Have Been Discovered

June 9, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Fossilized skull of Homo floresiensis, a hobbit-like hominid
Photo credit: NCSSM/flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

3-foot tall hominins lived 700,000 years ago on an Indonesian island.

Six teeth and a piece of jawbone recently discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores were a big find for the researchers who study the tiny hominin Homo floresiensis — affectionately nicknamed the Hobbit.

When the species was first discovered a dozen years ago, intense debate immediately ensued over the evolutionary origins of these diminutive relatives of modern humans who inhabited Flores until around 50,000 years ago.

One school of thought was that a primitive hominin, such as Homo habilis or Australopithecus, journeyed from sub-Saharan Africa all the way to Flores, where they slowly became more Hobbit-like over time. Others proposed that H. floresiensis was the shrunken descendent of Homo erectus, already present in Southeast Asia at least one million years ago.

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Large animals that colonize islands tend to shrink over time to better cope with meager resources — a phenomenon known as insular dwarfism. Surprisingly, the newly discovered jaw and teeth, which are described in the journal Nature, are even smaller than those belonging to the previously described H. floresiensis individuals. The Hobbit ancestors are estimated to have stood just 3 feet tall.

Another shock came when a second team used radiometric dating to arrive at an age estimate of 700,000 years for the remains. This means that the original fossils were not simply dwarfed by some rare disease or deformity, as has been suggested. Rather, miniature hominins had an incredibly long run on the island.

The researchers noted that the fossils had greater similarity to H. erectus than to either H. habilis or Australopithecus, supporting the view that “H. floresiensis is a dwarfed descendant of early Asian H. erectus.”

However, William Jungers, a palaeoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told Nature that additional fossils are required to draw any conclusions about evolutionary origins: “I don’t believe these scrappy new dental specimens inform the competing hypotheses for the origin of the species one way or another.”

Luckily, the fossil hunt is back on for study lead author Gerrit van den Bergh, who is hopeful that he will find even more hominin remains on Flores and the nearby island of Sulawesi. Apparently you can never have enough Hobbit fossils.

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