New 700,000-year-old fossils help solidify ancient existence of ‘hobbits’

Ancestors of an enigmatic human ancestry dubbed “the hobbits” may have been unearthed, according to a new study.

The species were probably smaller than fictitious hobbits, with origins tracing back around 700,000 years, the researchers noted. This indicated that these predecessors may have quickly reduced in size in wake of setting foot on the islands, including Flores, where the hobbit remains were originally discovered.

“These are priceless treasures that provide the first real insight into the evolutionary history of the mysterious ‘hobbits’ of Flores,” said Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, who was involved in one of the two studies published in the June 9 edition of the journal Nature.

Roots grounded in Flores

In 2003, scientists discovered fossils in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores that were a member of an unidentified hominin that was closely related to modern humans and lived approximately 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. The researchers purported this hominin belonged to a distinct branch of human ancestry known as Homo floresiensis. Standing a mere three-feet tall, the hominin was dubbed “hobbit,” based upon the small creature in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book with the same name.

Scientists suggested that H. floresiensis evolved from a group known as Homo erectus, an extinct human species that is widely regarded as the earliest ancestor of contemporary people. Researchers have hypothesized that this community drastically reduced in size before or after arriving at Flores. Another hypothesis is that H. floresiensis evolved from even more ancient hominins that had skeletons like apes and tinier brains. Scientists have debated whether the hobbit did in fact have these archaic beginnings, which would determine if hominins split from Africa significantly earlier than previously believed.

The recent findings, which encompass seven fossils tracing back a half-million years earlier than H. floresiensis, suggest the H. erectus connection, according to the researchers.

The recent fossils were unearthed in 2014 at a place called Mata Menge within the So’a Basin in central Flores, around 46 miles east-southeast of Liang Bua. The team has been excavating the site for more than 20 years.

“The temperatures in the So’a Basin can be extremely hot and very humid,” said Gerrit van den Bergh, a paleontologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, who helped author both studies. “You take one step and you are soaked with sweat. To reach the site, it takes thousands of steps. Not much you can do about it, just bring enough water and try to slow down a bit compared to what you are used to.”

Hominins’ remains preserved by volcanic mudflow

The remnants were discovered from the bed of a prehistoric stream that was blanketed and conserved by primordial volcanic mud flow. A review of the sandstone where the creatures were discovered implies the hominins lived on broiling grasslands peppered by wetlands.

The preserved remains of the hominins included a piece of an adult jaw and six teeth from no less than three individuals. The researchers discovered these fragments traced back at least 700,000 years, during a time when no modern day humans existed, Yousuke Kaifu, a paleoanthropologist at Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, explained to LiveScience.

Kaifu was astonished by the recent fossils. He said the discovery of something this old was anticipated to be much more like Homo erectus, who was significantly larger. What he discovered completely caught him off guard. Brumm suspects that H. floresiensis was a very old species that adapted to its small size on Flores during at an early time, perhaps not longer after it arrived on the island nearly a million years ago.