‘Hobbit’ discovered in Indonesia challenges evolutionary theory

Skeleton believed to be new species

Jatmiko, an Indonesian archaeologist, examines a prehistoric stone spall Sept. 14, 2009, at Liang Bua cave excavation site where the remains of Homo floresiensis were discovered in Ruteng, Flores island of Indonesia. A world turned upside down may once have existed on the remote island of Flores, where an international team is trying to shed light on the fossilized 18,000-year-old skeleton of a dwarf cavewoman whose discovery in 2003 was an international sensation.

A researcher holds a skull of a Homo floresiensis in this undated photo taken in Indonesia.

? Hunched over a picnic table in a limestone cave, the Indonesian researcher gingerly fingers the bones of a giant rat for clues to the origins of a tiny human.

This world turned upside down may once have existed here, on the remote island of Flores, where an international team is trying to shed light on the fossilized 18,000-year-old skeleton of a dwarf cavewoman whose discovery in 2003 was an international sensation.

Her scientific name is Homo floresiensis, her nickname is “the hobbit,” and the hunt is on to prove that she and the dozen other hobbits since discovered are not a quirk of nature but members of a distinct hominid species.

“They butchered the animals here,” said the researcher, Rokus Due Awe, studying the toothpick-sized rat bones possibly left over from hobbit meals. Behind him, workers carried out buckets of soil from a cathedral-like cave festooned with stalactites, 130-feet underground.

New species

The discovery of Homo floresiensis shocked and divided scientists. Here apparently was a band of distant relatives that exhibited features not seen for millions of years but were living at the same time as much more modern humans.

Almost overnight, the find threatened to change our understanding of human evolution.

It would mean contemplating the possibility that not all the answers to human evolution lie in Africa, and that our development was more complex than previously thought.

Critics, however, dismissed the hobbit’s discovery as nothing extraordinary. They continue to argue that the hobbit, just 3 feet tall with a brain the size of a baby’s, was nothing more than a deformed human. Its strange appearance, they say, could be blamed on a range of genetic disorders that cause the body and brain to shrink.

The feud has played out in top scientific journals. But a growing consensus has emerged among experts on human origin that this is indeed a separate and primitive species that lived in relatively modern times — 17,000 to 100,000 years ago. The November issue of the highly respected Journal of Human Evolution was dedicated to the Flores findings and included a dozen studies supporting the hobbit as a new species.

Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said the critics are “very much in the minority now.” He said that he just returned from a meeting in Arizona of more than two dozen experts on human origins and found widespread support there for the new-species theory. No one, he said, “took the view that this was some weird, pathological freak.”

William L. Jungers, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center who co-edited the Journal of Human Evolution issue, insisted the debate was over. He has published a study of the hobbit’s feet which found it had traits associated with both modern humans and apes.

“This is a new species that cannot be explained by any known pathology,” Jungers said.

A missing chapter

The mounting evidence has prompted Australian archaeologist Mike Morwood and his team to expand their research to the Soa Basin on Flores and the nearby Indonesian island of Sulawesi to answer several questions: Who were the hobbit’s ancestors? Where did they come from? What were their interactions, if any, with the modern humans of the time? Why are they extinct?

Africa is central to any narrative about human evolution because it is believed that Homo erectus was the first hominid to leave the continent 1.8 million years ago, and most hominid fossils have been found there.

But the discovery of the hobbit, with its primitive traits, suggests that important stages in hominid evolution may have occurred in Asia, said Morwood, the coordinator of the hobbit dig. For example, he said, it may turn out that Homo erectus evolved in Asia.

“For many people, this was totally unexpected and indicates how little we know about hominid evolution, particularly in Asia,” which may have “played a prominent role in some major developments in human evolution,” he said.

Stringer, for one, believes the hobbit’s ancestors could have been a forerunner of Homo erectus. If fossils are found to prove that, he said it would upend the belief that erectus was the first of our ancestors to make it out of Africa and eventually migrate to China and the Indonesian island of Java.

Instead, something more primitive may have left Africa, evolved into erectus and then returned to the continent.

“We’d have to say something got out earlier than that and we don’t have any record of its evolution in the whole of Asia,” Stringer said. “That means there is a complete missing chapter of the story of human evolution in Asia if that is correct. That would be very interesting and important if true.”

Still, no one who supports the new-species theory suggests the hobbit is a direct ancestor of modern humans. Rather, they believe it represents a previously unknown branch of a pre-modern, hominid lineage.