She has been called a hobbit, a deformed human, and even an “alien from Earth.” Discovered twelve years ago on the Indonesian island of Flores, her bones have sparked debates about who she is, how she came to be here, and what her relation is to us. Her name is LB1, informally known as the hobbit, and she is the type specimen for the newest species of our own genus: Homo floresiensis.
Consisting of a fairly complete skull and part of a skeleton, LB1 is arguably one of the most surprising discoveries in the history of paleoanthropology (in fact that is precisely what I’m arguing in my dissertation), and many of her secrets are far from exposed. She stood at only three feet tall, she existed on this planet relatively recently (18,000 years ago–a blink of an eye in the scope of human evolution), and she doesn’t look quite like any other hominin found to date. Based on preliminary research I’ve done looking into her story, here are a few facts I thought were cool about the discovery and debates of LB1 (also known affectionately as Flo).
If you’re interested in learning more about this fossil, great stories have been published in Nature and other places.
- Her discoverers were not looking for hominin fossils. They were actually on an archaeological expedition, looking for evidence of Homo sapiens migration into Australia. They were expecting stone tools, butchered animal bones, but definitely no hominins. Thus, the discovery of a new species of hominin was a big surprise.
- Flo is not alone. In total, the team has found partial remains of nine individuals at Liang Bua. LB1, however, is the only skull. Skulls are extremely informative, every detail from teeth to brain size and shape provide crucial details for paleoanthropologists about who these creatures were. It’s worth mentioning that Flo is also found in the company of stone tools and many other fossil creatures such as the elephant like Stegadon.
- Significant controversies have shaped her study. LB1’s discovery and scientific study has raised all sorts of questions over the past decade. One of the more major ones was the controversy that ensued when the bones were borrowed by an archaeologist who allegedly damaged LB1 trying to make cast replicas. This event is discussed a bit here, but also in more detail in Morwood’s book on the discovery.
- Some scientists continue to argue she suffers from conditions such as down syndrome. Though this paper sparked outrage, with many paleoanthropologists suggesting this idea is “nonsense” and others criticizing the peer review process for even getting this paper published.
- Her DNA eludes us. Though DNA has been recovered from much older fossils, for example the Neandertals, scientists have had extreme difficulty extracting DNA from LB1. The environment of the Liang Bua cave is not conducive to preserving bones and DNA well, in fact the LB1 bones have been described as having the consistency of “wet blotting paper,” and this has made it difficult for DNA to be well preserved within the bones.
This is only a handful of facts about a very interesting hominin. There is so much more to Flo’s story, and I hope to provide an interesting new perspective to her story with my dissertation research. Over the next few months I will begin reviewing the literature on LB1, as well as begin conducting interviews with scientists involved in the project of uncovering the hobbit’s secrets. So stay tuned for more info about a very small relative!
Sources & Additional Reading
- Morwood, Mike J., and Penny Van Oosterzee, A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the” hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia, (New York: Smithsonian Books/Collins, 2007).
- Falk, Dean. The fossil chronicles: How two controversial discoveries changed our view of human evolution. Univ of California Press, 2011.
- Stringer, Chris, “Human Evolution: Small Remains still Pose Big problems,” Nature 514 (2014): 427.