A race of intelligent, diminutive hominids co-existing alongside humanity in South-East Asia? In the year 2003, a creature from mythology stepped out of the shadows and into the cold, hard light of science when an archaeological dig revealed what appeared to be a new species of hominid that matched closely with local myths of a creature known as the Ebu Gogo.
The remote island of Flores in Indonesia is thought to have been unaffected by the most recent of Earth’s glaciation periods, and it was here that a unique collection of species once flourished, including now-extinct giant rats and the pygmy elephant Stegodon. But archaeologists looking for evidence of the presence of Homo sapiens in ancient times were shocked to find fossils of what appeared to be a completely new species. They named it after the island on which it was found, but while it is known to science as Homo floresiensis, its small stature has led it to be constantly referred to in the media as the ‘hobbit’. The enormous success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies round about this time was certainly an influence!
The hobbit stood at just over 1m tall, making it significantly smaller than even the pygmies of Africa. It was heavier-set and presumably stronger than Homo sapiens, with scientists having gone on record as saying that it could easily have crushed the arm of any modern man foolish enough to engage in a bout of arm-wrestling with it. The unusual teeth, the lack of a definite chin, and the small size of its brain, even allowing for its height, all point to the hobbit being a unique species. We know that it used sophisticated tools and fire, that it hunted and ate Stegodon, and that it had regions of the prefrontal cortex in the brain associated with self-awareness that are about the same size as those of modern man. The most contested claim is that the hobbit may even have been capable of some form of speech. Most astonishing of all, the hobbit appears to have been the last other hominid on Earth to have lived alongside modern man, as it survived until at least 12,000 years ago.
Throughout recorded history, mankind has not shared this Earth with any other intelligent hominid, so we have very little experience to go on to imagine the effects of such co-habitation. How would the two species have interacted? Did they make war? Did they trade? Did they regard one another simply as another dangerous animal to be wary of, or something more? We know that hominids as ancient as Neanderthal man and Homo erectus exhibited some aspects of religion, and it is tempting to wonder what place these species, so clearly related, played in their understanding of the world. Whatever the interaction, it came to a sharp end some 12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption apparently put an end to this relic population.
Of course, such dramatic developments in science rarely pass without controversy. The discovery of the hobbit has been shrouded in almost constant controversy since 2003, with scientists taking cheap pot-shots at one another and griping – when they aren’t refuting each other’s work in respected scientific journals. The main contention has been that the ‘hobbits’ were merely a dwarfish group of Homo sapiens that exhibited a condition known as microcephaly, in which the head fails to develop properly, and remains small throughout adulthood. Not only this, but after the discovery, the Indonesian government prevented reputable press organizations such as the BBC from visiting the cave where the remains were found for four years. Critics maintain that they wished to prevent any possibility of the conclusions being proved false.
Controversy still rages, but the current situation looks more in favour of the hobbit being a new species, with recent studies showing that the structure of the hobbit’s joints and feet in particular show stark differences from those of humans, and are in fact more similar to other living hominids such as chimpanzees and extinct ones such as the African Australopithecus.
The true answer may never be known. But whether the hobbit was the last of its noble kind or simply a crippled, pitiful remnant of humanity, and whether or not it clashed with Homo sapiens, it will continue to cause rifts in the world of anthropology for some time to come.