“Hobbits” Disappeared Much Earlier Than Previously Thought

Hobbit Excavation, Smithsonian

The mysterious hominin known as the “Hobbit” died out far earlier than previously thought, scientists have learned. The revised age, published today in the journal Nature, could help resolve, or reignite, controversies over the diminutive fossil’s origins. It also raises some intriguing questions about why Homo floresiensis vanished—and what role our own species might have played in its demise.

When the discovery of 3-foot-tall Homo floresiensis and its grapefruit-sized head was announced in 2004, the tiny hominin’s odd mix of ancient and more modern physical features captured the public’s imagination and created controversy among scientists tasked with figuring out exactly what kind of creature the unusual bones represented.

Excavations on the Indonesian island of Flores have now revealed that Homo floresiensis called Liang Bua cave home between 190,000 and 50,000 years ago, rather than as recently as 12,000 years ago, which was the surprisingly late date previous research had suggested …

Was There a Human Hand in the Hobbits’ Extinction?

Adding to the Hobbit’s intrigue was the relatively recent age originally assigned to the fossil, which had pegged it as the last known human species to vanish from the ancient world—excepting our own, of course.

The dates made it possible, though not certain—given the island’s remote location—that our two species coexisted for some significant part of those 40,000 years, which would have been a unique arrangement between modern humans and earlier human species. “I wondered how [Homo floresiensis] could have survived for so long after the arrival of Homo sapiens in the region at least 50,000 years ago, when other forms of human, such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans, had physically disappeared long before,” notes Stringer.

However, it’s still unclear if the Hobbits survived long enough to encounter modern humans at all. The earliest evidence of humans on Flores—in the remote string of islands stretching east of Java—doesn’t appear until some 11,000 years ago. But modern humans were on some of the region’s other islands by 50,000 years ago and had even reached Australia by that time. Their impact there, along with the apparent timing of the Hobbit’s extinction, suggests our own species could have possibly played a dark role in the disappearance of the Hobbits. If, in fact, the two ever met.

“At least for Australia, the weight of evidence points to humans playing a decisive role in the extinction of the giant endemic animals or ‘megafauna’ that once roamed the continent,” says co-author Richard “Bert” Roberts of the University of Wollongong in Australia. “So was Homo floresiensis another casualty of the spread of our species? This is certainly a possibility that we take seriously, but solid evidence is needed in order to demonstrate it. It will definitely be a major focus of further research.”  …  read more, watch video —>  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/

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