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The Mystery of the "Hobbits"

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Most people think of J.R.R. Tolkien when they hear the term hobbits. The very personable figures in his popular sci-fi series brings to our mind small, talented, gentle beings. A little more than a decade ago, the term was also the nickname given to the fossils found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. The bones were very similar to those of humans but much smaller. Originally dated to 18,000 years ago, their age was recently updated to about 50,000 years. Their Latin name is Homo Floresiensis.

Their ancestry remains a mystery. For many years, there was a viable proposal that the bones were simply those of a human with some disease like micro encephalitis. The latest news is the discovery of more human fossils dated to about 700,000 years ago. These were also smallish humans, about the size of Hobbit, and are highly likely to be the ancestors of Hobbit. But while it solves some mysteries, it generates others.

A couple of possible explanations remain to be examined. One is that a little over a million years ago, a community of Homo Erectus migrated to Indonesia. Members of this species ranged up to six feet tall. In this case, the population could have undergone what is known as “island dwarfism” in which species that are isolated on a small island evolve into smaller versions of their species, sometimes as much as six times smaller. While many species have been found to exhibit such dwarfism, it has never been seen in humans. If this happened, then H. Floresiensis is likely a descendant of the branch of H. Erectus that underwent dwarfism rather rapidly. The 700,000 year old fossils are about the same size as the 50,000 year old one, but much smaller than H. Erectus.

An alternative theory is that it was a much earlier migration out of Africa rather than H. Erectus that led to a population in Indonesia at that time. These individuals would have been smaller to begin with and less rapid dwarfism needed to have occurred. More data will be needed to distinguish between these two ideas. In either case, it seems the argument for a diseased human explanation for the “Hobbit” is vanishingly weak.

What do we make of all this? Paleoanthropology continues to be a fascinating field. New technology is providing more specialized tools to tease more data from both old and new fossil discoveries. What we do know is that human ancestry is rich with diversity and far from a simple story of a single species.

Tags:  fossils  human ancestry  human evolution 

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Alice C. Linsley says...
Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2016
The oldest known human populations to have moved out of Africa were small compared to later human populations. The The San are an example. Around 22,000 years ago, these hunter-gatherers constituted the largest known population of humans on Earth. Today they are call "Khoisan" which is derived from two words: Khoe-Khoe (Hottentot) and the San (Bushman).
The Arabic name for the San is Wakwak. The Sandawe of Tanzania call the Bushmen Wanege. Wa was the earlier name for Japan and the word appears in the name Okinawa. Likely this is related to the Ainu word for water: Ainu: ワㇰカ [wakːa]. The African variant of Okinawa would be Yokinawah (perhaps akin to the Biblical names Yoachin/Yoktan?). W'b in Ancient Egyptian refers to the priest caste, the pure ones, who dispersed widely in prehistoric times.

Recent DNA studies have revealed that the Ainu of Hokkaido and the Ryukyuans of Okina-wa have a closer genetic affinity than either group has to the Japanese.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Thursday, June 9, 2016
Thank you very much, Alice. Very interesting.
Just for clarification, when you say "oldest human populations to have moved out of Africa..." do I understand you to mean the earliest out of Africa migration of our modern H. Sapiens? I think for H. Floresiensis ancestors, they were talking about pre-human migrations out of Africa between 1 and 2 million years ago that are not direct human ancestry and may have gone extinct by 50,000 years ago.
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David E. Singer says...
Posted Wednesday, June 15, 2016
Randy, I’ve also read about these Hobbits in a Scientific American post. It is all very intriguing. Some of the ambiguity in defining these Homo Floresiensis or whatever seems to be deciding whether or not they are human or not. In your description you state, “The latest news is the discovery of more human fossils dated to about 700,000 years ago.” But do we know that they are human or not? The first Homo Sapiens I thought were dated to around 200,000 years ago. While Homo Erectus goes back 2 million years and are assumed to be part of the human lineage I didn’t think they were considered “humans” as such.

But putting all this aside, these discoveries raise once again how complex is the human family tree. We have little clarity about the linkages between ourselves and other living primates and exactly how we got to be what we are.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Thursday, June 30, 2016
I apologize. I should have been more precise. I meant "hominin" instead of "human." And I always have to double check to recall whether I should be using "hominin" or "hominid." It seems the latest usage is that "nominid" includes all humans and Great Apes and all their ancestors back to the common ancestor while "hominin" is more restrictive and refers to all human ancestry after the split from the Great Apes. I probably used "human" subconciously since I wanted to refer to the genus Homo rather than all hominins. I believe some people may use the term "human" to refer to the genus "homo" but I think more commonly it may refer to Homo Sapiens as you used it.
I think the controversy about H. Florensiensis is whether it evolved from H. Erectus or some other branch of Homo. I suspect the latter but more data will have to come to settle that.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Friday, July 1, 2016
If you faithfully check the ASA homepage each day (good idea!), you will have noticed the following posting on Wednesday:
Interesting to note the use of fire by modern humans on that island around 41,000 years ago while no evidence has been found that the "hobbits" ever used fire. Of course, humans used fire in other places much earlier than that, but it could be a differentiator.
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