In 2003, a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists on the Indonesian island of Flores was looking for evidence of early human migration from Asia to Australia. On this day in 2004, in Liang Bua, a cave on Flores, they stumbled upon a discovery that would shake the archaeology world: Flores Man.
Flores Man is, in fact, the remains of eight skeletons unearthed by archaeologists Mike Morwood and R. P. Soejono and their team. They date from 38,000 to 13,000 years ago, potentially representing a new species in the genus Homo.
Due to their small size, these hominids have been nicknamed “hobbits.” The specimens had small grapefruit-sized brains and bodies–one, nicknamed Little Lady of Flores, was a mere 3 feet, 6 inches tall, and weighed about 55 pounds.
They also enjoyed a relatively recent existence. Archaeological dating suggests Flores Man, or Homo floresiensis may have been alive as recently as 12,000 years ago. Remarkably, Flores Man’s discoverers have proposed that the specimens lived contemporaneously with modern humans (Homo sapiens) on the Indonesian island of Flores.
Since its discovery, researchers are working to determine whether Homo floresiensis represents a new species distinct from modern humans, a finding that would rewrite anthropological textbooks–and rewrite history. Several academic articles comparing Flores Man’s carpal bones and arm and shoulder joints to chimps and apes, respectively, suggest Homo floresiensis is indeed a separate species from Homo sapiens. However, Indonesian anthropologist Teuku Jacob and others have suggested Flores Man is a modern human with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the circumference of the head is smaller than average for a person’s age and sex.
Researchers believe Flores Man’s ancestors probably reached the island of Flores a million years ago, either by some early form of a sea vessel, or a crude land bridge. They likely used stone tools, also unearthed near their bodies, to hunt small, elephant-like creatures called stegodons, or dwarf elephants.
Isolated on a small island, the specimens began to inbreed, researchers believe, leading them to evolve a small body size, a process known as “island dwarfing.” Climate change and the spread of modern humans may have led to their eventual extinction.
Researchers are still determining whether Flores Man is a new species. Its discovery, and the possibility that humans may have co-existed with another species, is among the most outstanding finds in palaeoanthropology in more than half a century.
Credit: © Christian Darkin / Alamy (left) and © Picture Press / Alamy (right)
Caption: A size comparison between a “hobbit” and modern man, and a Homo florensiensis skull.