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Fireplace discovery sheds light on hobbits' demise


Scientists are a step closer to understanding when Homo floresiensis vanished and modern humans took their place. Bill Condie reports.


A Homo floresiensis skull from a mould made from fragments of the skull of Homo floresiensis, a hominid species found in 2003 in Liang Bua cave, Flores, Indonesia.
JAVIER TRUEBA/MSF/Getty Images

New evidence narrows the time gap between the last Homo floresiensis – the so-called hobbits on the Indonesian stand of Flores – and the arrival of modern humans.

Scientists at the University of Wollongong in Australia have found signs that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, were probably using fire at the Liang Bua site on the island 41,000 years ago.

Dating estimates of the original hobbit skeleton published in Nature in March, placed the bones between 190,000 and 60,000 years old and the most recent stone tools at 50,000 years old.

But researchers had no idea what happened at the site between 46,000 and 20,000 years ago.

The new research carried out with Indonesia's National Research Centre for Archaeology showed physical evidence of fireplaces in use between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago.

Given that there is no evidence of Homo floresiensis using fire during the course of some 130,000 years, the study leader Mike Morley of the University of Wollongong says modern humans are the most likely candidates for the construction of the fireplaces.

The Liang Bua cave in Indonesia where the remains of the hobbit were found.
University of Wollongong

That would be the earliest evidence of modern humans in Southeast Asia.

The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The remains of small-statured hominins were first discovered at Liang Bua in 2003.

“We now know that the hobbits only survived until around 50,000 years ago at Liang Bua,” said Morley.

“We also know that modern humans arrived in Southeast Asia and Australia at least 50,000 years ago, and most likely quite a bit earlier.

Mike Morley holds a sediment sample taken from the Liang Bua site. The sample contains crucial new evidence that has revealed modern humans were probably using fire there 41,000 years ago.
Paul Jones/University of Wollongong

“This new evidence, which is some of the earliest evidence of modern human activity in Southeast Asia, narrows the gap between the two hominin species at the site.”

He said that finding the fireplaces in such an excellent state of preservation also provided insights into the behaviour of the people.

Morley and his team used a technique called “micromorphology” to examine the sediments taken from the site at a microscopic level of detail.

Wafer-thin slices of sediment blocks were analysed under a microscope, with spectroscopic analysis and new radiocarbon dates were used to determine the age of each layer examined for the study.

The study comes just weeks after UOW researchers, also from CAS, announced they had found 700,000-year-old fossilised remains of what appear to be ancestors of the hobbit.

Related reading: Where did we come from? A primer on early human evolution

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Bill Condie is head of publishing at The Royal Institution of Australia and former publisher of Cosmos.
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