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.