Homo floresiensis: An Unexpected “Something”

14 Dec

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit



Image Source: http://www.sierracollege.edu

Today the highly-anticipated movie The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in U.S. theaters.  It seems as good a time as any to revisit what we know about Homo floresiensis, the fossil hominin popularly called “hobbit.”

The quote above is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, but it also perfectly describes the initial discovery of Homo floresiensis bones at Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia.  The specimens of this diminutive hominin species were indeed something; something wonderfully unexpected!

First of all, the bones date to about 18,000 years ago.  In the whole scheme of hominin evolution, 18,000 years is not very long ago at all.  It is after Neanderthals had gone extinct and represents a period in which, we once thought, anatomically-modern Homo sapiens were the only remaining bipedal hominins on the planet.  This may hold true for most of our world, but, in the exceptional case of Flores Island, we shared an environment with “little people” in the not-too-distant past.

And they were little: averaging about one meter (3’ 6”) tall, weighing about 30 kg (66 lbs.), and having surprisingly small brains (about 400 cc).  But here’s the real mystery: despite these very small brains, Homo floresiensis is associated with tools reflecting a technological (and behavioral?) sophistication previously only seen among larger-brained hominins, like us.

How were these hobbits able to achieve so much with so little?  Were there encounters between Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis?  If so, were they hostile or cooperative?  If we let our imaginations run wild, could the prevalence of small humanoid creatures in world mythology reflect ancient memories of actual encounters with Homo floresiensis?  (Doubtful for many reasons, but it is fun to speculate about).

I’ve just briefly introduced a few of the unexpected traits of the Flores Island hobbits.  Much remains to be learned about them.  In the meantime, the Smithsonian’s Human Origins website includes an excellent overview of the current state of floresiensis research.  Enjoy!

One Response to “Homo floresiensis: An Unexpected “Something””

  1. jayfancher 07/19/2013 at 7:42 am #

    A post from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True called “Human evolution: the hobbits were probably real.” http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/07/18/human-evolution-the-hobbits-were-probably-real/

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