Fossils Of ‘Hobbit’ Ancestor Reveal How They Shrank

The first hobbit fossils were excavated from the Liang Bua cave in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores. For more than a decade, there have been heated debates regarding the origins of this mysterious creature that lived about 50,000 years ago. But in 2014, archaeologists uncovered six teeth and jawbone fragment from Mata Menge, which is only about 46 miles from Liang Bua cave.

Fossils Of 'Hobbit' Ancestor Reveal How They Shrank

The fossils are 700,000-year-old

A detailed analysis of fossils revealed that four of the teeth belonged to the same adult as the jawbone fragment. The other two were “milk teeth” each belonging to a separate infant. Scientists led by Gerrit van den Bergh from Wollongong University in Australia published findings of their study in the journal Nature. The fossils were about 700,000-year old, indicating the hobbit hominin had much older ancestors than previously thought.

Scientists said the newly discovered fossils belonged to a bigger species that reached the Flores island about a million years ago. Though the samples are 700,000-year-old, they show surprising similarities to hobbits, also called Homo floresiensis. There have been a variety of theories regarding how the hobbits achieved the dwarfed form. One theory says they are the dwarfed form of Homo erectus, while others argue that hobbits evolved from even older, smaller bodied hominins like Homo habilis or Australopithecus.

“Island dwarfing” caused Homo erectus to shrink to hobbit size

There were also a few theories suggesting that the hobbits were a form of diseased Homo sapiens that dwarfed due to developmental conditions like microcephaly or Down syndrome. But the new study says the hobbit indeed is a dwarfed form of Homo erectus from Java that might have gotten isolated on Flores. Scientists have found stone tools on Flores that are a million years old. Around the same time, the Homo erectus was living on nearby Java island.

The Homo erectus that grew in isolation on Flores might have shrunk to the hobbit size in a process called “island dwarfism” over a period of hundreds of thousands of years. Island dwarfing is when an animal responds quickly to limited resources on an island by shrinking its body size. For instance, the red deer shrank to just one-sixth of its original size just 6,000 years ago on the island of Jersey. Flores island itself was once home to a small elephant-like creature.