Hobbit histories: the origins of Homo floresiensis

Hobbit histories: the origins of Homo floresiensis


This 9-millimetre-wide fragment of tiny molar was the first evidence of an ancient, equally tiny, human. It was found in a recent archaeological dig on an island in Indonesia, and sheds new light on the origins of the creatures known as hobbits. Back in 2004, strange bones were discovered in Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores. With remarkably small skulls, and estimated to be just over a metre tall, the hobbits were a new and unique species of ancient human. But where did they come from and how did they end up so small? Gerrit van den Bergh and his colleagues have been trying to find out. In 2014 they were digging at a site 50 kilometres away from Liang Bua cave, in a layer of rock 650,000 years older. They were looking for the hobbit’s ancestors. We have been working here for more than twenty years. We have already dug 32 trenches. This is now the one where we have finally got fossils of a fossil hominin. My PhD student, Mika R. Puspaningrum, she was the first one to recognise this fossil as a molar of a hominin. And then a couple of days later we found this piece of mandible. This is a mandible of an adult individual and it’s very small; it’s even smaller than Homo floresiensis from Liang Bua. The fact that the hobbits were so small led many to believe that they must have evolved from one of our smaller, more primitive, ancestors. But these new fossils look much more like Homo erectus, a more recent, larger-brained relative of modern humans. This means that the hobbits’ bodies and
brains must have shrunk dramatically. Gerrit and others think that living on an island with limited food could have driven this change. The brain size of Homo floresiensis is very small: the size of a chimpanzee. But they made stone tools and they walked upright. So maybe they just didn’t need such a big brain, because a brain is a very expensive organ and maybe a smaller brain might work as well here, in an island setting. But what is clear is that they made stone tools so they were not stupid. We can only speculate on the evolution and intelligence of these island bound relatives of ours. But Gerrit is sure that the hobbit and its ancestors are redefining what it means to be human.

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