New fossils have been discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores. The bones appear to be an ancestor of the hominin species named Homo floresiensis (known as the hobbits)! The bones–some teeth and part of a jaw–were uncovered in an area called Mata Menge, only 74 kilometers from the cave in which the hobbits themselves had been found back in 2003. These new Mata Menge bones reveal a creature very similar to H. floresiensis, with similar looking teeth and of equally small size. The bones date back to 700,000 years ago, much older than the 80,000 year old hobbits.
Many of you probably know I love Homo floresiensis, in fact much of my dissertation centers around the bones (check out my 2 posts about them: 5 facts, and about the moment they were discovered), so it goes without saying that I’m pretty excited about this new ancestral find. Reporter Ewen Callaway already wrote a great article about the new find, so I won’t repeat it here. Instead, I thought I’d highlight why I think these fossils are super cool. Here are my top 4 reasons:
- This means the hobbits were not just diseased humans. Let’s get this one out of the way: the Mata Menge bones provides evidence that the hobbits were indeed their own species of humans. Over the last 12 years, some scientists had put forward hypotheses suggesting the hobbits were simply modern humans who suffered from microcephaly or down syndrome, resulting in their small size and small brains. These ideas have been losing ground over the years anyway, but this discovery is the final nail in the coffin. As one researcher put it: the hobbit is real.
- This tells us about where the hobbits came from–well sort of. For years scientists have been trying to figure out which hominin species the hobbits descended from. Some argued it could be the descendant of a species of Australopithecus, while others claimed it looked more like Homo erectus. Though these new fragmentary bones can’t tell us for sure, they suggest that the hobbits were indeed a descendent of H. erectus. The evidence comes from the teeth: the creature from Mata Menge had teeth that appear to be intermediate between H. erectus and H. floresiensis.
- This illuminates a crazy evolutionary experiment. The Mata Menge creatures suggest that the H. floresiensis linage lived isolated on an island for up to a million years. This is significant, because the island is a unqiue environment with very peculiar conditions. Knowing this long history on the island, we can now ask questions about how evolution works in these types of scenarios. “It’s kind of like Flores is its own little laboratory of early human evolution” one of the researchers said.
- It gives us hope–& Dr. Morwood would be proud. For over a decade, many unanswered questions existed about the hobbit. With only a few individuals and only one skull, there was not enough material to say too terribly much about this small species. The finds at Mata Menge tell us that it is possible that more bones are out there. Also, this discovery would have made the late Dr. Mike Morwood proud, I believe. Morwood was behind the excavations that originally brought us the hobbit, and his premature death in 2013 robbed us of an enthusiastic scientist dedicated to learning more about the hobbits. As Callaway reports, Morwood visited Mata Menge the year before he died, and he was very much hoping to find ancestors of the hobbits there.
Other implications of the find are undergoing scientific scrutiny as we speak, and many questions remain. For example, the authors of the Mata Menge paper argue that these fossils mean that this group of H. erectus shrunk down quickly, but other experts are not convinced. We also want to know how these creatures got to the island, and what they looked like when they arrived. Time will tell us more, and hopefully the team gets funding to go back into the field to look for more fossils!
Bonus: 2 things this story reminds us:
- Finding hominin fossils is hard! It took the team 10 years of excavating to find these bones. In the process they found tens of thousands of other bones, of creatures like stegodons (extinct mini elephants)–but the hominins themselves remained elusive.
- Expect the unexpected! Paleoanthropologists could never have predicted that such a crazy hominin could have existed. The hobbits–with their huge feet and tiny brains–remind us that these things did exist, and that we need to remain open to unexpected possibilities.