“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
Unbeknownst to Tolkien, he actually wasn’t far from the truth.
In 2003, archaeologists stumbled upon the fossil of a diminutive human species which they called Homo floresiensis which soon gained the nickname of ‘The Hobbit’. The fossil is at least 17,000 years old and about a meter tall (hobbits are usually between 0.61 and 1.22 meters tall according to Tolkien). Many believed that the individual was actually a disfigured member of our own species and it was proposed that he may have had Downs Syndrome or microcephaly.
Despite significant support for these theories, they didn’t sit well with everybody. Compared with Homo sapiens, the Hobbit had an unusually small body size and a much smaller brain. Furthermore, the skeleton was a veritable mishmash of primitive, advanced and unique features. For instance, she shape of the skull was similar to Homo erectus, but the proportions of the upper versus lower limbs was more like that of Australopithecus, a much older human ancestor.
New analysis of the specimen’s teeth is now able to put the debate surrounding the fossil to rest, as it has been discovered that Homo floresiensis really was a separate species.
The research, conducted by Professor Yousuke Kaifu and his team from the University of Tokyo, involved comparisons between the teeth of many different human ancestors. The results showed that although the premolars and canines of Homo florsiensis appeared to be relatively primitive, the molars were very advanced and resembled those of modern humans. This combination of features has not been seen in any other human species, leading the team to conclude that the Hobbit was indeed a species in its own right.
Kaifu proposed that the Hobbit evolved from Homo erectus as a result of being stranded on the island of Flores, in modern day Indonesia.
“Combined with other evidence such as geographic proximity and a report that the earliest evidence for hominins on Flores (1 million years ago) does not exceed the oldest record for H. erectus in Java (1.2 million years ago), we suggest that H. floresiensis evolved from early Javanese H. erectus or a related form from the ancient Sundaland.”
The reasons for the dramatic evolution are not yet known, although a likely explanation involves dietary changes. Further research is needed to discover how these people may have lived; unfortunately Tolkien doesn’t have all the answers.