Since the beginning of last month, it is pretty impossible not to hear about Peter Jackson’s movie interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novel, The Hobbit. Written in 1937, this story was about Bilbo Baggins’ quest to reclaim their kingdom from a dragon called Smaug (click here for a better synopsis).
To my surprise, ‘Hobbits’ actually existed. Bones (not yet fossils) of Homo floriensensis, to give it its scientific name, has been discovered in 2003 by a group of scientists at the Liang Bua cave in the island of Flores in Indonesia (Brown et al., 2004; Morewood et al., 2004; Lahr & Foley, 2004). They were about 3 feet tall and just like us, were able to stand, walk and run on two legs although their limbs were said to have been more like those of Chimpanzees than ours (Brown et al., 2004).
Hunting and Tool Use
Based on other evidence collected in Liang Bua, it has been suggested that Hobbits hunted pigmy elephants, 20-foot Komodo dragons and giant rats. The cut marks on these animals suggest that Hobbits fashioned tools for hunting and killing them. Indeed, there were stone tools such as pointed ones with refined edges, blades, choppers and cores were found in the island. Interestingly, this also suggests that they possessed the planning skills akin to us Homo Sapiens, which made skeptics skeptics suggest that these tools were made by Homo Sapiens, but were used by H. Floriensis. They theorised that since the Hobbits’ brains were so small (roughly 1/3s of the size of our brains), they could never have had the mental abilities to make such tools. However, there are no evidence to support such a claim.
Some have suggested that the Homo Floriensis is not really a distinct species, but were Homo Sapiens with Microencephaly (a neurological disorder in which the affected’s head circumference is marginally smaller than average). Another theory put forward is that the size difference is because of the radical size changes associated with being isolated in an island (a.k.a. The Island Rule). The Island Rule posits that species who moves to a location where there is no significant threat and/ or food and other resources are scarce, their sizes gradually decrease (insular dwarfism).
One should note that only a careful examination of the Hobbits’ DNA will confirm one of the theories put forward above. The Hobbits’ bones are not yet fossilized, hence mitochondrial DNA may be still be extracted and studied.
Brown P., Sutikna T., Morwood M., Soejono R.P., Jatmiko, Saptomo E.W. et al. (2004): A new small-bodied hominin from the late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature, 431:1055-61.
Lahr M.M. and Foley R. (2004): Human evolution writ small. Nature, 431:1043-4.
Morwood M., Soejono R.P., Roberts R.G., Sutikna T., Turney C.S.M., Westaway K.E. et al. (2004): Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia. Nature, 431:1087-91.