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Did humans kill off the hobbit?


Two teeth found in a cave on Flores island add to evidence that Homo sapiens interacted with Homo floresiensis, possibly with disastrous results.


Computer images of a Homo floresiensis skull (left) next to a human (Homo sapiens sapiens) skull. Evidence is growing that H. Sapiens may have killed off the tiny hominin.
Science Photo Library

A pair of teeth found in an Indonesia have added to speculation that humans were responsible for the demise of the hominid species Homo floresiensis, known as “hobbits” due to their one-metre stature.

The 46,000-year-old teeth were found on the island of Flores, the hobbits' home. But they are slightly younger than the hobbits themselves, reinforcing evidence that Homo sapiens moved onto the island and possibly killed off their tiny rivals.

The find was announced recently by archaeologist Thomas Sutikna and geochronologist Richard Roberts, both at Australia’s University of Wollongong, who were the first to discover the remains of the hobbits back in 2003.

At first, scientists thought the hobbits had lived on Flores as recently as 11,000 years ago, well after Homo sapiens had arrived in the region.

The latest research, however, dates the extinction of the hobbits to around 50,000 years ago, about the time modern humans were arriving in south-east Asia.

That timing made more sense and suggested to Roberts that the arrival of modern humans had sounded the death knell for the hobbits.

“It’s a smoking gun for modern human interaction, but we haven’t yet found the bullet,” he told Nature at the time.

Presenting the finding at a recent conference, Sutkina said the team was confident that the upper premolar and lower molar teeth came from Homo sapiens.

Others are not so sure.

María Martinón-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at University College London, told Nature that, while the lower molar looks like a H. sapiens tooth, the premolar seemed “a bit more primitive”.

She said she would also like to see a comparison with teeth from Homo erectus.

Liang Bua cave on Flores Island, Indonesia, where the skull of Homo floresiensis was found in 2003.
JAVIER TRUEBA/MSF Creative

“I think they have quite a tough job. There are lot of factors to take into account,” she says.

Roberts agrees.

“We need to find more fossils. It’s a good start. I feel we’re almost on the cusp of knowing what happened.”

As to the role of modern humans in the demise of the hobbits, the jury is still out.

“What we don't yet know is whether there was at least a short overlap in the populations,” Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, told Nature.

More evidence may emerge next April when Roberts, Sutikna and their team return to the site at Liang Bua.

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Curated content from the editorial staff at Cosmos Magazine.
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