The hobbits of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination have no counterpart in our world. The short-statured creatures depicted, of course, in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy must remain in Middle Earth. But a groundbreaking anthropological discovery did reveal that our world once had its own species of hobbits — different than Tolkien’s, certainly, but also startlingly similar.
Homo floresiensis, popularly named “hobbits,” was a species of ancient hominin — humans and our closest ancestor and kin species — that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores. Their discovery was announced in 2004, based on a skeleton found in Ling Bua cave called LB1.
The inside of the Liang Bua hobbit cave. (Credit: Felix Dance/Creative Commons 2.0 via Flickr)
The diminutive hominins stood under 4 feet tall, and had a mix of modern and more archaic physiological characteristics, including brains just a third the size of ours. Archeologists have found in the same cave stone tools resembling the Oldowan style that predominated beginning around 2 million years ago .
For this reason and others, it’s still unclear which species of hominin they evolved from — it could have been Homo erectus, or perhaps even more ancient acestors like Australopiths. Whatever their genealogy, it’s likely that H. floresiensis lived on Flores for some time before disappearing around 50,000 years ago. Other discoveries on the island indicate they, or their ancestors, inhabited the island at least as far back as 700,000 years ago.
One of the most popular theories for their tiny stature rests on the phenomenon known as island dwarfism. Animals that live on islands often evolve to become smaller and smaller because of the limited resources of their constricted geography. Examples include the pygmy elephants of Malta, the dwarf Burmese python and even some species of dinosaur. The same thing could have happened to H. floresiensis over time as they adapted to their habitat.
Indeed, short-statured humans live on Flores even today. However, recent research looking at modern-day pygmy populations in the region indicates that the current inhabitants of Flores bear no relation to the ancient hobbits. Instead, the contemporary residents of Flores likely evolved shorter statures on their own, a separate example of island dwarfism at work.
Why the ancient hobbits went extinct is still a mystery. Changing environmental conditions, paired with the inherent difficulty of living on a small island, could have been factors. Our own species may even have played a role. Homo sapiens passed through the area before 65,000 years ago. Our ancestors may have interacted with these ancient hobbits — and perhaps even contributed to their downfall.