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Homo floresiensis: The curious case of the hobbit and what its outstanding discovery taught us

Homo floresiensis: The curious case of the hobbit and what its outstanding discovery taught us

2023-09-04 22:09:57

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Indonesian archaeologist Thomas Sutikna was nursing a fever in a lodge room on September 2, 2003, when a coworker shared information of what turned out to be a once-in-a-generation discovery.

Earlier that day, a colleague’s trowel had hit a tiny human-like cranium encased in 6-meter (19.7-foot) deep sediment in Liang Bua, a big cave within the highlands of the Indonesian island of Flores that Sutikna and his colleagues had been excavating since 2001. Sutikna’s fever instantly vanished, and after a fitful evening’s sleep, he and his workforce set off for the location at dawn.

They had been thrilled to uncover extra bones — some nonetheless connected to 1 one other — in the identical location on the high-ceilinged cave.

“There have been leg bones, hand bones, tibia, femur, grouped in there, in a single context.
Given the very fragile situation of the bone, it was not attainable to raise it (out of the bottom) instantly,” recalled Sutikna, now an archaeologist and researcher at Indonesia’s Middle for Archaeometric Analysis on the nation’s Nationwide Analysis and Innovation Company.

In this photo taken Monday, Sept. 12, 2009, workers labor at Liang Bua cave excavation site where the fossils of Homo floresiensis were discovered in Ruteng, Flores island of Indonesia. An 18,000-year-old dwarf female skeleton was recovered in the cave in 2003 threatening to overturn conventional view of human evolution which says that our species, Homo sapiens, systematically crowded out other upright-walking human cousins beginning 160,000 years ago. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

To harden the brittle uncovered bone, he utilized some acetone nail polish remover purchased from a cosmetics retailer combined with glue the workforce had on web site.
The workforce then introduced the blocks of reduce sediment containing the bones again to the lodge by minibus.

Wahyu Saptomo, one of many subject archaeologists who had first advised Sutikna in regards to the discovery, remembered that they positioned the blocks of soil on their laps — the most secure place throughout a bumpy minibus journey on an unpaved street.

At first, the workforce thought maybe the tiny cranium and different bones belonged to a toddler, however as Sutikna cleaned the fossil on the lodge, he noticed it had the molar tooth of an grownup. It seemed to be a totally new sort of human, a feminine specimen with a perplexing mixture of options that stood simply over 3 ft (about 1 meter tall) and would have weighed round 66 kilos (30 kilograms).

“We had been all stunned by the fossil, as a result of after cleansing it could possibly be seen that the tooth had all grown and had been intact. The cranium bones additionally confirmed that it was an grownup bone, not a toddler’s cranium,” mentioned Sutikna, who subsequently took the fossil to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Now, 20 years later, scientists are nonetheless struggling to definitively place this enigmatic piece of the evolutionary puzzle. However the journey sparked by its discovery has led to revelations that problem what’s identified in regards to the human household tree.

A 3D cast of a controversial skeleton called the

The workforce and its worldwide collaborators knew from the beginning that what they’d discovered was groundbreaking, they usually labored exhausting to maintain their discovery secret for greater than a yr so the stays could possibly be studied intimately.

Once they launched the outcomes of their analysis, in two studies published within the high-profile scientific journal Nature simply over a yr later, the findings shook up the sphere of paleoanthropology and captivated a wider viewers, making headlines all over the world.

Nicknamed hobbit — the massively fashionable first “Lord of the Rings” movie had come out in late 2001 — by Mike Morwood, the late Australian archaeologist who had spearheaded the dig, the Liang Bua specimen regarded like one thing from the film’s Center Earth realm.

The amount of its braincase, measured with mustard seeds smuggled from Australia by Indonesian customs, was round 400 milliliters, just like a chimpanzee. (The amount of a contemporary human braincase is 1,500 milliliters.) Its legs had been quick, with disproportionately massive ft, and its arms lengthy like a primate.

Preliminary relationship of carbon within the sediment decided the stays to be 18,000 years previous, which was startlingly younger, placing the beforehand unknown species nearer in time to us than the Neanderthals. (The dates had been revised in 2016, estimating as an alternative that the hobbit was 50,000 to 60,000 years previous.)

The Liang Bua workforce named the species Homo floresiensis after the island the place the fossils had been found. (Two other names were considered: Homo hobbitus — handed over as a result of it was thought to trivialize the discover — and floresianus — rejected after the conclusion that it meant flowery anus.)

The invention challenged the concept people developed in a neat line from primitive to advanced and underscored simply how a lot remained unknown in regards to the human story.

“(The specimen) was simply mistaken in about 5 other ways and surprising to the purpose of individuals pondering like this may’t be attainable,” mentioned Paige Madison, a historian of paleoanthropology and science author who’s engaged on a e-book in regards to the hobbit titled “Unusual Creatures Past Depend” to be revealed in 2025.

(AUSTRALIA OUT) The team involved in discovering the 'hobbit', Homo floresiensis, a miniature human species on the Indonesian island of Flores, were in Sydney, at the Australian Museum, to talk about the discovery, 28 October 2004. Pic shows (left to right) Professor Bert Roberts, Uni of Wollongong, and Professor Mike Morwood, Uni. of New England, with artifacts from the site. SMH Picture by ROBERT PEARCE (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Some specialists in human evolution vehemently argued the Liang Bua bones had been these of a contemporary human with a development dysfunction — corresponding to microcephaly, a situation that results in an abnormally small head, a small physique and a few cognitive impairment. That assertion unleashed a fierce debate that took years to resolve.

The workforce that found the hobbit disagreed and put ahead two theories. Almost certainly, members of the workforce thought, their discover was a dwarfed offshoot of Homo erectus — the primary human species to depart Africa and migrate all over the world, the stays of which have been found in Java and elsewhere in Asia.

The form of the tooth and cranium morphology had been comparable, although Homo erectus stood a lot taller. It was attainable, the researchers thought, that Homo erectus had executed what another species of animals that dwell on distant islands have — shrunk over time in response to restricted assets.

Nonetheless, the tiny mind case and chimplike wristbones recommended the hobbit was associated to australopithecines — small-bodied hominins, finest identified from the well-known Lucy fossil, that roamed Africa greater than 2 million years in the past. This potential hyperlink raised the likelihood that australopithecines additionally as soon as migrated out of Africa thousands and thousands of years in the past.

Precisely how the hobbit got here to be continues to be an open query, mentioned Chris Stringer, analysis chief in human evolution on the Pure Historical past Museum in London.

“I’m on the fence on this one as a result of I can see the proof for each side of the argument,” Stringer mentioned, “and I feel we actually nonetheless don’t know the place its origins are.”

Nonetheless, the concept the hobbit was a diseased trendy human has been largely rejected, he mentioned.

The next discovery of two different small-bodied and small-brained hominins that lived comparatively not too long ago — Homo naledi in South Africa and Homo luzonensis within the Philippines — and the a lot bigger Denisovans has led to a wider acceptance amongst paleoanthropologists that there have been many, various species of human, together with a number of that coexisted with our personal species, Homo sapiens. Earlier than the invention of the hobbit, many specialists in human evolution thought primarily just one species of human had developed by time, with regional variation.

The skull, left,  of a newly discovered 18,000-year-old species, known as  Homo floresiensis,  is displayed next to a normal human's skull, right,  at a news conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia Friday, Nov. 5, 2004. In a breathtaking discovery, scientists working on a remote Indonesian island of Flores say they have uncovered the bones of a human dwarf species marooned for eons while modern man rapidly colonized the rest of the planet. (AP Photo/str)

Matt Tocheri, Canada analysis chair in human origins at Lakehead College in Thunder Bay, Ontario, first noticed casts of the Liang Bua hobbit round 2006 throughout a presentation on the fossils’ conservation on the Smithsonian Establishment. An skilled in wristbone evolution, he was instantly shocked to see that the wrists extra carefully resembled these of an African ape than a human, an statement that swayed him towards the concept Homo floresiensis is extra carefully related to Lucy and her kinfolk than a scaled-down Homo erectus.

In 2014, a partial Homo floresiensis jawbone and tooth had been discovered on a distinct web site on Flores referred to as Mata Menge and dated to 700,000 years in the past — significantly older than the unique specimen. They had been comparable in measurement, if not smaller, than these present in Liang Bua, suggesting that the Flores hobbits had acquired their extraordinarily small physique measurement by that early level, working towards the concept the hobbits had been evolutionary dwarfs of some variety.

Nonetheless, different specialists argue that dwarfism might have occurred even deeper up to now or on a distinct island.

It’s additionally attainable, Tocheri famous, that the hobbit’s small stature is a results of sexual dimorphism — when the 2 sexes have completely different bodily traits. The working speculation is that the Liang Bua hobbit is feminine due to the broader form of its pelvis, and it’s not clear what a male hobbit may need regarded like. Whereas greater than 100 Homo floresiensis fossils — seemingly belonging to 6 or seven people — have been unearthed thus far, there’s just one comparatively full skeleton and just one cranium, which is essentially the most informative physique half.

Tocheri, who’s now carefully concerned with archaeological work on Flores, retains an open thoughts. “There are nonetheless so many unknowns; we’ve got to be very cautious,” he mentioned.

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To resolve these debates and perceive extra about Homo floresiensis and its place within the human household tree, extra fossil discoveries are wanted, significantly in Asia. For instance, Tocheri famous, there aren’t any identified Homo erectus wristbones for him to check with the hobbit’s.

Scientists additionally hope to have the ability extract historic DNA from Liang Bua. Makes an attempt up to now have been unsuccessful, however new strategies — together with extracting DNA from cave dust or decoding historic proteins — might assist make clear which hominin the hobbit is most carefully associated to.

“They see it as sort of like a holy grail of genomes,” mentioned Madison, the science author. “It appears that evidently the hobbit might be on the fringe of chance so far as recovering a genome. Not as a result of it’s too previous, as a result of they’ve genomes a lot older, however as a result of the environmental circumstances are so necessary in preserving that (DNA). And people sizzling environments, humid environments, these are actually tough environments for them to retrieve DNA.”

There’s nonetheless a lot to study in regards to the hobbit. Sutikna marvels at how such a primitive-looking hominin may need reached Flores: Solely Homo sapiens had been thought to have the ability to make oceangoing vessels, and Flores has by no means been related to a big landmass, so historic people couldn’t have walked there.

The research of ocean currents means that the species may need come from Sulawesi, an island to the north, quite than the nearer islands to the west, though Homo floresiensis fossils have nonetheless solely been discovered on Flores. Stringer mentioned he thinks it’s attainable {that a} group of hobbits was swept on a raft of land within the aftermath of a tsunami.

Archaeologists and paleontologists have additionally pieced collectively some details about the hobbits’ lives. Their island was residence to a now-lost ecosystem of dwarfed elephants referred to as stegodons that stood 1.2 meters (3.9 ft) excessive, colossal 2-meter-tall (6.6-foot-tall) storks, Komodo dragons and big rats.

It’s not clear whether or not the hobbits would have hunted or scavenged these animals, though Tocheri mentioned it was more than likely the latter given the hobbits’ measurement. Whereas charcoal has been discovered within the cave, it’s now thought that this proof of fireplace use is related to the later occupancy of recent people, quite than the hobbits.

One other thriller is why the hobbits disappeared after surviving for thus lengthy on Flores. Sutikna mentioned {that a} thick layer of volcanic ash was discovered simply on prime of the layer the place Homo floresiensis was first discovered.

“We estimate that at the very least eight volcanic eruptions have occurred. And above the volcanic ash layer, we didn’t discover any fossils of Homo floresiensis or different historic animals,” he mentioned. “Nonetheless, we can’t affirm whether or not this pure catastrophe destroyed Homo floresiensis.”

Tocheri mentioned it’s unlikely {that a} volcano alone doomed the hobbits. The island of Flores had at all times been volcanically lively, and the hobbit had lived there for the almost 1 million years. Extra seemingly, it was a mixture of things. A altering local weather, maybe mixed with the arrival of Homo sapiens within the area, might have performed a task, Tocheri mentioned.

No matter led to its extinction, the hobbit’s discovery teaches us about humanity’s place within the evolutionary tree and nature extra broadly, in response to Madison.

“We all know loads about evolutionary ideas at this level, however generally I feel we’re a little bit bit hesitant to use them to ourselves,” Madison mentioned. “I feel that (this discovery) reminds us that we’re only one evolutionary end result.”

Tocheri agreed. “It didn’t actually rewrite what we knew, but it surely simply explosively confirmed us that there was this entire different chapter.”

Masrur Jamaluddin in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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