You have probably heard of the “Hobbits,” a recently-extinct species of small hominid whose bones were discovered on the Isle of Flores in Indonesia. Formally known as Homo floresiensis, the Hobbits may have only gone extinct approximately twelve thousand years ago.
H. floresiensis remains were first discovered in 2003. Our understanding of their evolution, biology and habits are still hazy. We still don’t know exactly when they first evolved, or where, or when, exactly, they went extinct. Estimates place them as disappearing anywhere from 95,000 years ago to 12,000. Indeed, some (admittedly marginal) people speculate that there may still be relic populations of H. floresiensis alive in remote southeast Asian wildernesses.
Scientists generally speculated that H. floresiensis must have evolved from H. erectus, considering that H. erectus was the only other hominid that lived in the area surrounding Indonesia. A new study conducted by The Australian National University suggests that H. floresiensis probably evolved in Africa from the same ancestor species as H. habilis, one of the oldest species of early human. H. habilis lived around 1.75 million years ago.
Previous studies of H. floresiensis remains focused on the hominid’s skull and jaw. The new study collected data on 133 discrete data points relating to a broader scope of H. floresiensis anatomy.
“The analyses show that on the family tree, Homo floresiensis was likely a sister species of Homo habilis,” said Dr. Debbie Argue, the study’s lead researcher. “It means these two shared a common ancestor.”
“It’s possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa, then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere.”
When the researchers tried to draw a link between H. floresiensis and H. erectus, the relationship was not supported by their data. “We looked at whether Homo floresiensis could be descended from Homo erectus,” explained Dr. Argue. “We found that if you try and link them on the family tree, you get a very unsupported result. All the tests say it doesn’t fit – it’s just not a viable theory.”
The big tell is the lower jaw. The Hobbits had a much less sophisticated jaw than Homo erectus. “Logically, it would be hard to understand how you could have that regression – why would the jaw of Homo erectus evolve back to the primitive condition we see in Homo floresiensis?”
According to Professor Mike Lee of Flinders University and the South Australian Museum, the data point strongly away from the H. erectus hypothesis. “When we did the analysis there was really clear support for the relationship with Homo habilis. Homo floresiensis occupied a very primitive position on the human evolutionary tree.”
“We can be 99 per cent sure it’s not related to Homo erectus and [there is a] nearly 100 per cent chance it isn’t a malformed Homo sapiens.”