The Mystery of the Human Hobbit
An Exciting new Discovery, or an Embarrassing Blunder?
Horizon - The Mystery of the Human Hobbit
600km east of Java in the Indonesian archipelago lies an island that
time forgot. It is a world of smouldering volcanoes, flesh-eating
dragons and miniature elephants, the island of Flores. Two years ago a
team of archaeologists were on a routine investigation when they made an
In a cave, deep in the jungle, they unearthed some human remains. The
body was only a metre long, which they assumed were the remains of a
young girl. They sent off samples of earth from around the body to
establish when she had died. The results showed that she was 18,000
years old. With great care, they removed her from the grave, and what
they saw made no sense.
All the cranial sutures were healed up, the wisdom teeth had erupted
and the teeth were very worn. All of these facts suggested an adult and
not a child as they had first thought.
Jaws for comparison
Further analysis of the skull showed, to Peter Brown the team's bone
expert, a receding chin, a narrow jaw and twin-rooted teeth, all
characteristics that are very unlike a modern human. The Flores jaw was
narrow and V-shaped while the modern human jaw is broader and parabolic.
Furthermore, the dates didn't make sense. 18,000 years ago the modern
Homo Sapiens was supposed to be the only species of human left on the
planet. The scientists are convinced that this is not a modern human and
so are faced with the puzzle of where this might fit into human
They begin to compare the body to a range of possible human
ancestors. They begin with our earliest known ancestor,
Australopithecine, they were almost as small as the Flores skeleton but
there were few other similarities. It did not share distinctive
Australopithecine characteristics and, Australopithecines never set foot
The other early human of similar stature was Homo Habilus, but
Habilus died out one and a half million years before the Flores woman
lived. More recent humans like the Neanderthals lived nearer her time,
but their frame was far more thick-set.
Looking more closely at the shape and size of the skull made it clear
that it was most like that of Homo Erectus who is known to have
inhabited Java. But at one metre tall, the Hobbit was almost half the
size of Homo Erectus. Evidence of sophisticated tools and weapons
implying teamwork and a possible language, set the Hobbit far apart from
The mystery deepened when they measured the brain cavity, for despite
evidence of intellect the brain was smaller than a chimpanzee's.
Everything about her challenged our understanding of what it means to be
human. The team believed they had found an exceptional new species of
Professor Teuku Jacob
Much to the horror of the discovery team, the Hobbit bones
disappeared. It turned out they had been borrowed, without permission,
by Professor Teuku Jacob of the Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta who
is considered Indonesia's authority on Homo Erectus. He argues that he
had permission and simply wanted to see this new find for himself.
Professor Jacob, after examining the bones, declares that they don't
look like any Homo Erectus he has ever seen, in fact, they don't even
look primitive. He is convinced that this is a modern human and thinks
her descendants might still be alive.
In Chicago, more doubt is a bout to be cast on the Hobbit theory.
Professor Jim Phillips, a stone tool expert, of the University of Illinois
says "The Hobbit is a case where the evidence of the stones does
not fit the bones". He contends that the stone tools found with the
Hobbit are far more sophisticated than anything found with Homo Erectus.
The stone tools found with the Hobbit are the tools of a modern human.
The assault on the theory of the Hobbit was gathering force. Another
scientist was about to join the ranks. Professor Bob Martin of the Field
Museum in Chicago thinks the Hobbit's brain is worryingly small and he
claims the discoverers have overlooked a fundamental law of biology.
"What this law says, in simple terms, is that if you half body
size, brain size is only reduced by about 15%". According to this
basic biological law, the one metre tall Hobbit should have a brain size
of 750cc, but the individual discovered in Flores has only a brain size
The team behind the discovery believe there is a loophole in this
law. They say that evolution on a remote island will not follow
conventional wisdom. This is how, over thousands of years, a Homo
Erectus shrank to become a small-bodied, small-brained Hobbit. Professor
Bob Martin refutes this, arguing that humans have lived in isolation on
many islands without shrinking, and the Flores theory is not scientific.
Professor Ann MacLarnon of Roehampton University, London says of the
Hobbit "The Flores specimen is a very odd fossil, particularly the
size of the brain. This size of this brain with this body just isn't
normal, so meybe you need to begin to think was something abnormal about
the specimen". In London's Royal College of Surgeons she has found
a specimen with striking similarities to the Hobbit. The specimen is
known to have been about 3 years old when she died but the body is
little bigger than a new born baby. This infant had a condition known as
Microcephaly can result in dwarfism and it has one other classic
characteristic, as well as resulting in a small brain, it also affects
the face and jaw and could explain the Hobbit's unusual jaw shape and
twin-rooted teeth. These deformities could easily be mistaken for
primitive features. To make a scientific comparison she needed to find a
microcephalic brain of a similar age to the Hobbit. Hidden away in the
museum vaults she found just what she was looking for. She measured the
brain capacity of the modern microcephalic and found it to be almost
exactly the same as the Hobbit's.
Professor Jacob and his team travel to the village of Rampasasa on
Flores, less than a kilometre from the Liun Bua cave where the Hobbit
was discovered. Jacob wished to examine the features and stature of the
villagers to see if they could be the living descendents of the Hobbit.
The villagers are unusually short, but not as short as the
Hobbit. While the team are present they are visited by a distinguished
local, the village elder. Johannes Daak stopped counting his years a
long time ago, but it is rumoured that he is over one hundred. Johannes
is short, short enough at 1.33m to be classified as a pygmy. Although
Johannes is a foot taller than the Hobbit, if he had microcephaly, he
would be much smaller, with a small brain.
The Hobbit sceptics agree that this explanation fits the facts much
better. If the people of Rampasasa are the descendents of the Hobbit
then they are living, breathing proof that she was not a different or
This is not quite the end of the story. The original discovery team
have not given up. They return to Flores to look for further evidence
and find another jaw in a new cave. When they X-Ray this jaw they find
the same twin-rooted teeth, which they claim, vindicates their theory.
The chances of two cases of microcephaly are, they argue, so small as to
be almost impossible. Peter Brown has been swayed a little and has now
decided that the Hobbit, or Homo Floresiensis as it has been dubbed, did
not evolve from Homo Erectus, but from another small-bodied ancestor. If
this is the case, then this small-bodied ancestor is unknown to modern
CREDITS: All of the above information came from the BBC
"Horizon" series of programmes.