New ‘hobbit’ fossils may reveal origins of the species

Indonesian discovery matches up with the Homo floresiensis remnants found in 2003

Scientists have discovered more "hobbit" fossils in Indonesia that match up with those found in 2003.

However, the latest find pushes the family history of these small-bodied early humans back by more than 1,600 generations. It also suggests answers about their origins and ancestry.

The original remains were dug out of a site at Liang Bua in western Flores, Indonesia. They caused an immediate sensation due to their size.

Although clearly an early human, the fossils came from a creature that was only about a metre tall, which was much shorter than the other early human species that were emerging at the time.

They were quickly dubbed hobbits, after the fictional characters of short stature created by JRR Tolkien, although their official name is Homo floresiensis.

However, controversy arose over the origins of these creatures, given that they apparently lived between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago but didn’t seem to match up with other early humans of the time.

New find

The new find is from Mata Menge, about 70km away from Liang Bua, and is reported in two papers published on Wednesday by the journal Nature.

The fossils include a fragment of a jaw and six teeth from at least three small early humans, including milk teeth from an infant.

Even though the discovery is only the second such fossil find on Flores, the age of the fossils has astounded the research team, with these new finds dating back to about 700,000 years ago.

They also imply a clear ancestry to the first group of fossils, given similarities between the two fossil groups.

The Mata Menge fossils are smaller, with the jaw and teeth about 20 per cent smaller than those among the Liang Bua fossils.

Stone tools at the new site are similar to those found at the Liang Bua site, which suggests both groups are part of a single species.

Scientists believe the small-bodied hominin species might have evolved from a taller species, but have not been able to determine how this would have happened.

One theory suggests Homo floresiensis evolved from the much taller Homo erectus due to limited food supplies.

Another argues the hobbits evolved from a more primitive species, H habilis, which was about the same size as Homo floresiensis.

However, scientists are closer to an answer given the new find.

Its great age and physical characteristics tend to support the view that the Flores fossils are a dwarfed descendent of early Homo erectus, the authors conclude.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.