A remarkable skeleton was discovered on the island of Flores in 2003. At first glance it appeared to be an adult human but stood at only 3.5 ft tall. More digging uncovered another 8 individuals and they were all of a similar size. There were studied and researchers believed them to be a new hominin species, separate from us Homo sapiens. Amazingly, the remains were only 15,000 years old. In the grand scheme of things we had only just missed them. However, there were some researchers who weren’t convinced. The remains have been controversial since their discovery and a debate has raged over the true identity of the “hobbits” of Flores.
Scientists named the remains Homo floresiensis though they’re more commonly referred to as hobbits or Flores Man. These people stood only 100 cm tall and weighed just 25 kg but they’re unmistakably hominin (the group of primates containing humans and their immediate ancestors). They look human, they stood upright, and they used tools. If you look at our skeletons you can find many similarities with the great apes such as the chimpanzee or gorilla, but we also possess unique human features that we share only with extinct relatives such as the Neanderthals. The remains on Flores also share these features. They weren’t a type of monkey or other non-human primate, they were definitely hominin like us.
Human evolution from earlier hominins is messy and confusing but improved with each new finding. As recently as a few hundred thousand years ago our ancestors lived at the same time as other hominin species. We shared a world with Neanderthals, even breeding with them, and also another species called Homo erectus. How lonely it seems now. The current family tree sees Homo erectus as a branch that split off 1.8 million years ago and lasted until 70,000 years ago. There was a different species that branched and eventually led to the modern humans we are today. So we lived alongside Homo erectus and their lineage seemed to hit a dead end thousands of years ago. Their history is interesting and relevant as it could help explain the origins of the Flores remains.
Debate has raged since 2003 over who the Flores hobbits really are. There are two main camps the arguments belong to. The first is that Homo floresiensis isn’t actually a distinct species in its own right; they’re just modern humans like us, they’re just Homo sapiens. The argument is that the remains are evidence of a genetic disorder that caused reduced growth. Inbreeding on the island resulted in the disorder eventually spreading through the entire population. The small heads and brains are reminiscent of the microcephaly I spoke of recently concerning the Zika virus.
Alternatively, many researchers have argued that the hobbits are a distinct species hence the name Homo floresiensis. The hypothesis is that they are descendants of Homo erectus. The thinking is that they didn’t all die out but continued to survive and evolve. This population on Flores became smaller due to a biological phenomenon known as island dwarfism.
Taking another look
A new study in the Journal of Human Evolution claims to have settled at least part of the debate. The authors used the latest 3D-scanning technology in Japan on the remains of the islanders. Looking for tell-tale signs of Homo sapiens, the authors were unable to find any. Their conclusion from closely studying the bone structure is that the remains weren’t Homo sapiens with a growth disorder, but a distinct species. This comes months after another study focusing on the teeth that came to the same conclusion.
The new paper helps rule out the possibility that the remains belong to modern humans with a genetic disorder. The next question to address is where they actually came from. Knowing that the hobbits weren’t Homo sapiens doesn’t mean we know for certain that they evolved from Homo erectus. It’s a sensible theory but there’s always the possibility that Homo floresiensis represents the tip of a branch on the hominin family tree that we know nothing about. The picture of human evolution is becoming clearer all the time and hopefully we’ll continue to uncover exciting new species.
What I find most incredible about the discovery of these small hominins is how recently they were alive. I mentioned earlier that we just missed them, but by “we” I was talking about you and I. As a species, we likely did encounter and interact with them. Fascinatingly, the Nage people of Flores share a myth of the Ebu Gogo: small, human-like creatures that were hairy, walked upright, and could speak. Could it be that those myths arose from fact? Intriguingly, the Nago people claim that Ebu Gogo were still around as recently as when the Portuguese trading ships arrived in the 17th century and that they were killed by modern humans living on Flores. Perhaps the stories are just that: stories. Or maybe you and I were a lot closer to meeting them than we realised.
Main image © William Jungers