Model of the skull of Homo floresiensis, the small, human-like species nicknamed ‘the hobbit’.
In 2003, archaeologists on the island of Flores, Indonesia, made what has proved to be an extraordinary find. They unearthed the skeleton of a 1m-tall individual, nicknamed ‘the hobbit’, with some human-like features yet a small, chimpanzee-sized brain. Analysis revealed it to be just 18,000 years old.
This new human species was named Homo floresiensis and since its discovery other fossils have been found that suggest this strange hominin lived between 95,000 to as late as 17,000 years ago.
Due to its diminutive stature, the first H. floresiensis specimen unearthed is thought by some scientists to be a diseased modern human. However, multiple fossils with similar features have since been found.
Instead, it appears the hobbit may be an example of ‘island dwarfing’ – an evolutionary response that occurs when populations of large mammals become isolated on an island with a limited food supply and a lack of predators.
H. floresiensis is a puzzling species. The very small brain size, short legs, ape-like wrists and hipbone suggest it is more like an australopithecine (a group living over 2 million years ago) than a human. However, other parts of its anatomy suggest that it is a human species.
Archaeological evidence found in the same cave on Flores indicates H. floresiensis may have used tools and even hunted and controlled fire. Were their small brains somehow reorganised to allow for more human-like behaviour? Or were early modern humans responsible for some of this archaeological evidence?
The discovery of H. floresiensis has raised many questions - not only about this species, but about the human fossil record in Asia as a whole. Stone tools dating back over 800,000 years have been found on Flores, but we have no other evidence on the island of human evolution between this time and the time of H. floresiensis.
Is this species a descendant of Homo erectus, who migrated out of Africa into Asia? How did their ancestors reach the island of Flores? Only modern humans are thought to make boats to purposely cross stretches of water.
Did H. floresiensis and our species, Homo sapiens, ever come into contact with one another? And what happened to H. floresiensis? Was a volcanic eruption on the island the reason they became extinct?
The discovery of this species highlights how much still remains to be learnt about human evolution in Asia.