Remains of one of the most recently discovered early human species, Homo floresiensis (nicknamed ‘Hobbit’), have so far only been found on the Island of Flores, Indonesia. The fossils of H. floresiensis date to between about 100,000 and 60,000 years ago, and stone tools made by this species date to between about 190,000 and 50,000 years old. H. floresiensis individuals stood approximately 3 feet 6 inches tall, had tiny brains, large teeth for their small size, shrugged-forward shoulders, no chins, receding foreheads, and relatively large feet due to their short legs. Despite their small body and brain size, H. floresiensis made and used stone tools, hunted small elephants and large rodents, coped with predators such as giant Komodo dragons, and may have used fire.
The diminutive stature and small brain of H. floresiensis may have resulted from island dwarfism—an evolutionary process that results from long-term isolation on a small island with limited food resources and a lack of predators. Pygmy elephants on Flores, now extinct, showed the same adaptation. The smallest known species of Homo and Stegodon elephant are both found on the island of Flores, Indonesia. However, some scientists are now considering the possibility that the ancestors of H. floresiensis may have been small when they first reached Flores.
History of Discovery:
A joint Indonesian-Australian research team found LB-1—a nearly complete female skeleton of a tiny human that lived about 80,000 years ago—in Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia. The skeleton’s unique traits such as its small body and brain size led scientists to assign the skeleton to a new species, Homo floresiensis, named after the island on which it was discovered.
Since the initial find, bones and teeth representing as many as 12 H. floresiensis individuals have been recovered at Liang Bua—the only site where H. floresiensis has been found so far. The bulk of the finds related to H. floresiensis date between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago, with stone tools made by this species dating between 190,00 and 50,000 years ago.
How They Survived:
Stone tools found on the island of Flores show that early humans arrived there at least 1 million years ago, but it’s not known how early humans got there as the nearest island is 9 km (6 mi) away across treacherous seas. Paleoanthropologists found many stone tools associated with H. floresiensis, and these tools are broadly similar to those found earlier on Flores and throughout the human evolutionary career (i.e., Lower Paleolithic tools in Asia or Oldowan tools in Africa). There is also evidence that H. floresiensis selectively hunted Stegodon (an extinct type of elephant) as hundreds of Stegodon bone fragments are found within H. floresiensis occupation layers and some of these Stegodon bones show butchery marks.
Evolutionary Tree Information:
Although there has been considerable scientific debate over whether LB-1 (the holotype of Homo floresiensis) may represent a modern human with a disease or growth disorder, most scientists now recognize H. floresiensis as a valid taxon and a human species distinct from Homo sapiens (modern humans). Scientists are now trying to figure out exactly how H. floresiensis is related to other species in the genus Homo. For example, did H. floresiensis evolve from an earlier population of H. erectus, or did it evolve from a smaller species, such as the early humans found in Dmanisi (Republic of Georgia), or perhaps another early species of the genus Homo?
We don’t know everything about our early ancestors—but we keep learning more! Paleoanthropologists are constantly in the field, excavating new areas with groundbreaking technology, and continually filling in some of the gaps about our understanding of human evolution.
Below are some of the still unanswered questions about Homo floresiensis that may be answered with future discoveries:
- Which hominin species made the 1 million year old stone tools found on Flores?
- How did these early humans manage to get to the island of Flores?
- Did H. floresiensis have language, make art, and have other forms of cultural expression?
- Did H. floresiensis and our species, H. sapiens, ever come into contact with one another?
- Was a volcanic eruption on Flores the reason H. floresiensis went extinct?
- How similar is the DNA of H. floresiensis to the DNA of other human species? So far, no DNA has been retrieved from the bones of a H. floresiensis individual.