In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien wowed the world with his epic tale of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins of the shire, in the novel The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. The story takes place in Middle-earth which is a universe filled with fantastical creatures such as wizards, elves, goblins, dragons, and of course, hobbits. Hobbits are depicted as smaller versions of humans (although they do not cover their hairy feet with any footwear). However, like most of the characters of The Hobbit, they could only exist in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantastical world. Or could they?
In 2003, scientists found a startling discovery on the island of Flores, Indonesia. The remains of a race of miniature humans were found inside of a cave and were named Homo floresiensis. These distant relatives lived approximately 95,000-17,000 years ago, though evidence of early humans living on the island dates back to 800,000 years ago. Scientists first doubted that these skeletons belonged to an adult, and questioned whether or not the bones were simply due a genetic anomaly. However, after discovering several other remains of small hominid bones, they determined that the Homo floresiensis did in fact only grow to about 3.5 ft tall (which is the approximate height of the modern 6 year old). Therefore, their nickname, “Hobbit”, is quite fitting. While scientists are not certain of the cause of their small stature, they believe that it might be the result of island dwarfism – “an evolutionary process that results from long-term isolation on a small island with limited food resources and a lack of predators” (humanorigins.si.edu). Larger organisms require a large intake of calories to sustain their bodies, but since the island could not sustain large organisms, it was more evolutionarily beneficial to be small.
Several questions about this species still remain unanswered. How did these early humans make get across the water to the island? Did Homo floresiensis and Homo sapiens ever interact with each other? Why did this species go extinct? Anthropologists are still working to solve these mysteries, and to understand the history of humankind.
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