Flores is a pretty island in eastern Indonesia which is home to nearly two million inhabitants. Most significantly, it is the only place on Earth where traces of an ancient hominin species known as Homo floresiensis have ever been found.
Homo floresiensis was first discovered in 2003, when an excavation in Liang Bua Cave in western Flores yielded fragmentary skeletal remains of a tiny hominid species that is estimated to have had a height of only around 3 feet 6 inches—considerably shorter than the average adult height of even the smallest modern humans! Partial skeletons of nine individuals have been recovered, including one complete skull. The discovery was hailed as the most important find in human evolution for 100 years.
News of the discovery of a tiny archaic human species piqued the imagination and delight of people around the world who compared the species to the Hobbits imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, and since then, Homo floresiensis has affectionately become known as the Hobbit species of Flores Island.
The Hobbits occupied the island until relatively recent times, effectively become extinct around 50,000 years ago. Despite their tiny brain size, which puts them in the intelligence range of chimpanzees, they did exhibit some advanced behaviors such as the use of fire for cooking and butchering animals with tools for meat. Scientists have hypothesized that Homo floresiensis also had language.
Cave on Flores Island where the specimens were discovered. (Rosino/CC BY SA 2.0)
After the discovery of its skeletal remains, Homo floresiensis became the subject of much debate and intense research to determine whether it represented a species distinct from modern humans (Homo sapiens), or whether the remains belonged to a modern human with a disorder such as microcephalia, a condition characterized by a small head, short stature and some mental retardation; Laron syndrome, a genetic disorder that produces short stature and a small skull; or Endemic cretinism, a form of dwarfism still found in the local Indonesian population.
Numerous studies have now largely discredited the latter theory, pointing to features of the Homo floresiensis skull that are not consistent with any of these conditions.
A popular theory today is that the ‘Hobbit’ was a member of our family tree, belonging to the genus Homo, which descended from a population of Homo erectus that made its way to Flores around one million years ago and subsequently shrunk in stature due to the “island effect” over a period of about 300,000 years. Homo erectus lived between around 1.9 million and 143,000 years ago and is the first known species to have expanded beyond Africa to Asia.
But still many questions remain. If the Flores skeleton does, in fact, represent a unique ancient species, where did it originate and from which species did it descend? How did they get to the island of Flores? Did they interbreed with modern humans? And what was the eventual reason for their disappearance? For now, the answers to all these questions are unknown but perhaps in time, we will learn the truth about what many believe is one of our most endearing relatives, the Hobbit.
Top image: Archaeological Forensic Facial Reconstruction of the individual LB1 of the species Homo floresiensis. (Cicero Moraes et alii/CC BY 4.0)