It remains one of the greatest human fossil discoveries of all time. The bones of a race of tiny primitive people, who used stone tools to hunt pony-sized elephants and battle huge Komodo dragons, were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004.
The team of Australian researchers had been working in a vast cavern, called Liang Bua, in one of the island’s remotest areas, when one scientist ran his trowel against a piece of bone. Carefully the group began scraping away the brown clay in which pieces of a tiny skull, and a little lower jaw, were embedded. This was not any old skull, they quickly realised. Although small, it had special characteristics.
In particular, it had adult teeth. “This was no child, but a tiny adult; in fact, one of the smallest adult hominids ever found in the fossil record,” says Mike Morwood, of Australia’s University of Wollongong and a leader of the original Flores expedition team.
The pieces of bones were put together in Jakarta. The end result caused consternation. This was a species only three feet tall, an orange-sized brain and yet used sophisticated stone tools.
Initially “hobbits” were said to be descendants of a larger, ancient human species, Homo erectus, who had shrunk in an evolutionary response to the island’s limited resources. But new evidence suggests the little folk of Flores may be even stranger in origin. The view now is Homo floresiensis is probably a direct descendant of some of the first apemen to evolve in Africa three million years ago.
These primitive hominids somehow travelled half a world from their birthplace to live among Indonesia’s orangutans before eventually reaching Flores. There is a striking resemblance between the hobbits and these African apemen.
Consider Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old member of Australopithecus afarensis. She had a very small brain, primitive wrists, feet and teeth and was only one metre tall, but was still declared “the grandmother of humanity” after her discovery in Ethiopia in 1974. Lucy’s skeleton has great similarities with the bones of H. floresiensis, although her species died out millions of years ago while the hobbits were alive even 17,000 years ago. This latter figure is staggeringly close in terms of recent human evolution and indicates that long after the Neanderthals, our closest evolutionary relatives, had disappeared around 35,000 years ago, these distant Homo sapiens relatives were still living on Flores. This explains why the Flores people were tiny — because they came from an ancient lineage of little apemen. They were an anthropological relic and Flores an evolutionary time capsule.
Scientists recently dated stone tools on Flores as being around 1.1 million years old, far older than had been previously supposed, and supportive of this theory.
However, it is the hobbits’ similarity to ancient African apemen that provides the most compelling evidence for their ancient origins. In the Journal of Human Evolution, a team led by Debbie Argue of the Australian National University, recently reported that analysis of H. floresiensis shows they most closely resemble apelike human ancestors that first appeared around 2.3 million years ago in Africa.
In other words, their stock may be not quite as old as Lucy’s but probably comes from a hominid, known as Homo habilis, that appeared on the evolutionary scene not long after Lucy’s species disappeared. Homo habilis’s features now seem to match, most closely, those of H. floresiensis. Consider those hobbit feet, for example. The skeleton unearthed on Flores had a foot that was 20 cm in length. This produces a ratio of 70 per cent when compared with the length of the hobbit’s thigh bone.
By contrast, men and women today have foot-to-thigh bone ratios of 55 per cent.
The little folk of Flores had singularly short legs and long, flapper feet, very similar to those of African apemen.
Similarly, the hands of H. floresiensis were more like apes than those of evolved humans.
Nevertheless, this little apeman, with poor physique, a chimp-sized brain and only a limited ability to make tools, now appears to have left Africa, travelled thousands of miles and somehow colonised south-east Asia two million years ago. Until now, this had been judged biologically impossible.
How did the hobbits arrive on the island in the first place? It is a puzzle, although Chris Stringer of the British Natural History Museum believes the region’s intense tectonic activity is significant.
“After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, people were found far out at sea clinging to rafts of vegetation. People could have been swept out to sea and washed ashore on Flores. There could have been short-lived connections between now separate islands.” Thus, ancient African apemen travelled half the world, made homes across Indonesia and, in one case, were washed out to sea to end up colonising a remote island that was already populated with pygmy elephants, called stegadons, and giant Komodo dragons, which are still found on the island.
It is a truly fantastic tale — and it has turned the study of human evolution on its head.