The remarkable fossil that radically changed our understanding of the human story

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Indonesian archaeologist Thomas Sutikna was nursing a fever in a lodge room on September 2, 2003, when a coworker shared information of what turned out to be a once-in-a-generation discovery.

Earlier that day, a colleague’s trowel had hit a tiny human-like cranium encased in 6-meter (19.7-foot) deep sediment in Liang Bua, a big cave within the highlands of the Indonesian island of Flores that Sutikna and his colleagues had been excavating since 2001. Sutikna’s fever instantly vanished, and after a fitful night time’s sleep, he and his group set off for the location at dawn.

They had been thrilled to uncover extra bones — some nonetheless hooked up to at least one one other — in the identical location on the high-ceilinged cave.

“There were leg bones, hand bones, tibia, femur, grouped in there, in one context.
Given the very fragile condition of the bone, it was not possible to lift it (out of the ground) immediately,” recalled Sutikna, now an archaeologist and researcher at Indonesia’s Heart for Archaeometric Analysis on the nation’s Nationwide Analysis and Innovation Company.

The Liang Bua cave excavation site, where the fossils of Homo floresiensis were discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia. - Achmad Ibrahim/AP

The Liang Bua cave excavation website, the place the fossils of Homo floresiensis had been found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. – Achmad Ibrahim/AP

To harden the brittle uncovered bone, he utilized some acetone nail polish remover purchased from a cosmetics retailer blended with glue the group had on website.
The group then introduced the blocks of lower sediment containing the bones again to the lodge by minibus.

Wahyu Saptomo, one of many area archaeologists who had first informed Sutikna concerning the discovery, remembered that they positioned the blocks of soil on their laps — the most secure place throughout a bumpy minibus experience on an unpaved street.

At first, the group thought maybe the tiny cranium and different bones belonged to a toddler, however as Sutikna cleaned the fossil on the lodge, he noticed it had the molar tooth of an grownup. It gave the impression to be a totally new type of human, a feminine specimen with a perplexing mixture of options that stood simply over 3 toes (about 1 meter tall) and would have weighed round 66 kilos (30 kilograms).

“We were all surprised by the fossil, because after cleaning it could be seen that the teeth had all grown and were intact. The skull bones also showed that it was an adult bone, not a child’s skull,” stated Sutikna, who subsequently took the fossil to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

Now, 20 years later, scientists are nonetheless struggling to definitively place this enigmatic piece of the evolutionary puzzle. However the journey sparked by its discovery has led to revelations that problem what’s recognized concerning the human household tree.

A 3D cast of the skeleton of Homo Floresiensis on display at Stony Brook University, part of the State University of New York system. - Tim Wiencis/Splash News/Newscom

A 3D forged of the skeleton of Homo Floresiensis on show at Stony Brook College, a part of the State College of New York system. – Tim Wiencis/Splash Information/Newscom

Explosive discovery

The group and its worldwide collaborators knew from the beginning that what they’d discovered was groundbreaking, they usually labored laborious to maintain their discovery secret for greater than a 12 months so the stays might be studied intimately.

After they launched the outcomes of their analysis, in two research revealed within the high-profile scientific journal Nature simply over a 12 months later, the findings shook up the sphere of paleoanthropology and captivated a wider viewers, making headlines all over the world.

Nicknamed hobbit — the massively fashionable first “Lord of the Rings” movie had come out in late 2001 — by Mike Morwood, the late Australian archaeologist who had spearheaded the dig, the Liang Bua specimen appeared like one thing from the film’s Center Earth realm.

The amount of its braincase, measured with mustard seeds smuggled from Australia via Indonesian customs, was round 400 milliliters, much like a chimpanzee. (The amount of a contemporary human braincase is 1,500 milliliters.) Its legs had been brief, with disproportionately massive toes, and its arms lengthy like a primate.

Preliminary relationship of carbon within the sediment decided the stays to be 18,000 years previous, which was startlingly younger, placing the beforehand unknown species nearer in time to us than the Neanderthals. (The dates had been revised in 2016, estimating as an alternative that the hobbit was 50,000 to 60,000 years previous.)

The Liang Bua group named the species Homo floresiensis after the island the place the fossils had been found. (Two different names had been thought-about: Homo hobbitus — handed over as a result of it was thought to trivialize the discover — and floresianus — rejected after the belief that it meant flowery anus.)

The invention challenged the concept that people developed in a neat line from primitive to advanced and underscored simply how a lot remained unknown concerning the human story.

“(The specimen) was just wrong in about five different ways and unexpected to the point of people thinking like this can’t be possible,” stated Paige Madison, a historian of paleoanthropology and science author who’s engaged on a ebook concerning the hobbit titled “Strange Creatures Beyond Count” to be revealed in 2025.

Two members of the international team involved in discovering the specimen nicknamed the hobbit — professor Bert Roberts (left) of the University of Wollongong in Australia and Mike Morwood, the late Australian archaeologist — with artifacts from the site in 2004. - Robert Pearce/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Two members of the worldwide group concerned in discovering the specimen nicknamed the hobbit — professor Bert Roberts (left) of the College of Wollongong in Australia and Mike Morwood, the late Australian archaeologist — with artifacts from the location in 2004. – Robert Pearce/The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media/Getty Photographs

How the hobbit got here to be

Some specialists in human evolution vehemently argued the Liang Bua bones had been these of a contemporary human with a progress dysfunction — akin to microcephaly, a situation that results in an abnormally small head, a small physique and a few cognitive impairment. That assertion unleashed a fierce debate that took years to resolve.

The group that found the hobbit disagreed and put ahead two theories. Most probably, members of the group thought, their discover was a dwarfed offshoot of Homo erectus — the primary human species to depart Africa and migrate all over the world, the stays of which have been found in Java and elsewhere in Asia.

The form of the tooth and cranium morphology had been related, although Homo erectus stood a lot taller. It was potential, the researchers thought, that Homo erectus had performed what another species of animals that dwell on distant islands have — shrunk over time in response to restricted assets.

Nevertheless, the tiny mind case and chimplike wristbones advised the hobbit was associated to australopithecines — small-bodied hominins, finest recognized from the well-known Lucy fossil, that roamed Africa greater than 2 million years in the past. This potential hyperlink raised the chance that australopithecines additionally as soon as migrated out of Africa tens of millions of years in the past.

Precisely how the hobbit got here to be continues to be an open query, stated Chris Stringer, analysis chief in human evolution on the Pure Historical past Museum in London.

“I’m on the fence on this one because I can see the evidence for both sides of the argument,” Stringer stated, “and I think we really still don’t know where its origins are.”

Nevertheless, the concept that the hobbit was a diseased fashionable human has been largely rejected, he stated.

The following discovery of two different small-bodied and small-brained hominins that lived comparatively just lately — Homo naledi in South Africa and Homo luzonensis within the Philippines — and the a lot bigger Denisovans has led to a wider acceptance amongst paleoanthropologists that there have been many, various species of human, together with a number of that coexisted with our personal species, Homo sapiens. Earlier than the invention of the hobbit, many specialists in human evolution thought basically just one species of human had developed via time, with regional variation.

The skull (left) of Homo floresiensis is displayed next to a modern human's skull at a news conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in November 2004, shortly after the hobbit's discovery was made public. - AP

The cranium (left) of Homo floresiensis is displayed subsequent to a contemporary human’s cranium at a information convention in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, in November 2004, shortly after the hobbit’s discovery was made public. – AP

‘So many unknowns’

Matt Tocheri, Canada analysis chair in human origins at Lakehead College in Thunder Bay, Ontario, first noticed casts of the Liang Bua hobbit round 2006 throughout a presentation on the fossils’ conservation on the Smithsonian Establishment. An knowledgeable in wristbone evolution, he was instantly surprised to see that the wrists extra intently resembled these of an African ape than a human, an remark that swayed him towards the concept that Homo floresiensis is extra intently linked to Lucy and her family than a scaled-down Homo erectus.

In 2014, a partial Homo floresiensis jawbone and tooth had been discovered on a unique website on Flores known as Mata Menge and dated to 700,000 years in the past — significantly older than the unique specimen. They had been related in dimension, if not smaller, than these present in Liang Bua, suggesting that the Flores hobbits had acquired their extraordinarily small physique dimension by that early level, working in opposition to the concept that the hobbits had been evolutionary dwarfs of some form.

Nevertheless, different specialists argue that dwarfism might have occurred even deeper previously or on a unique island.

It’s additionally potential, Tocheri famous, that the hobbit’s small stature is a results of sexual dimorphism — when the 2 sexes have completely different bodily traits. The working speculation is that the Liang Bua hobbit is feminine due to the broader form of its pelvis, and it’s not clear what a male hobbit may need appeared like. Whereas greater than 100 Homo floresiensis fossils — possible belonging to 6 or seven people — have been unearthed so far, there’s just one comparatively full skeleton and just one cranium, which is probably the most informative physique half.

Tocheri, who’s now intently concerned with archaeological work on Flores, retains an open thoughts. “There are still so many unknowns; we have to be very careful,” he stated.

To resolve these debates and perceive extra about Homo floresiensis and its place within the human household tree, extra fossil discoveries are wanted, notably in Asia. For instance, Tocheri famous, there aren’t any recognized Homo erectus wristbones for him to match with the hobbit’s.

Scientists additionally hope to have the ability extract historical DNA from Liang Bua. Makes an attempt up to now have been unsuccessful, however new methods — together with extracting DNA from cave grime or decoding historical proteins — might assist make clear which hominin the hobbit is most intently associated to.

“They see it as kind of like a holy grail of genomes,” stated Madison, the science author. “It seems that the hobbit is probably at the edge of possibility as far as recovering a genome. Not because it’s too old, because they have genomes much older, but because the environmental conditions are so important in preserving that (DNA). And those hot environments, humid environments, those are really difficult environments for them to retrieve DNA.”

Homo floresiensis: A ‘whole other chapter’

There’s nonetheless a lot to be taught concerning the hobbit. Sutikna marvels at how such a primitive-looking hominin may need reached Flores: Solely Homo sapiens had been thought to have the ability to make oceangoing vessels, and Flores has by no means been linked to a big landmass, so historical people couldn’t have walked there.

The research of ocean currents means that the species may need come from Sulawesi, an island to the north, reasonably than the nearer islands to the west, though Homo floresiensis fossils have nonetheless solely been discovered on Flores. Stringer stated he thinks it’s potential {that a} group of hobbits was swept on a raft of land within the aftermath of a tsunami.

Archaeologists and paleontologists have additionally pieced collectively some details about the hobbits’ lives. Their island was dwelling to a now-lost ecosystem of dwarfed elephants known as stegodons that stood 1.2 meters (3.9 toes) excessive, colossal 2-meter-tall (6.6-foot-tall) storks, Komodo dragons and big rats.

It’s not clear whether or not the hobbits would have hunted or scavenged these animals, though Tocheri stated it was almost certainly the latter given the hobbits’ dimension. Whereas charcoal has been discovered within the cave, it’s now thought that this proof of fireside use is related to the later occupancy of recent people, reasonably than the hobbits.

One other thriller is why the hobbits disappeared after surviving for therefore lengthy on Flores. Sutikna stated {that a} thick layer of volcanic ash was discovered simply on high of the layer the place Homo floresiensis was first discovered.

“We estimate that at least eight volcanic eruptions have occurred. And above the volcanic ash layer, we did not find any fossils of Homo floresiensis or other ancient animals,” he stated. “However, we cannot confirm whether this natural disaster destroyed Homo floresiensis.”

Tocheri stated it’s unlikely {that a} volcano alone doomed the hobbits. The island of Flores had all the time been volcanically lively, and the hobbit had lived there for the practically 1 million years. Extra possible, it was a mix of things. A altering local weather, maybe mixed with the arrival of Homo sapiens within the area, might have performed a task, Tocheri stated.

No matter led to its extinction, the hobbit’s discovery teaches us about humanity’s place within the evolutionary tree and nature extra broadly, based on Madison.

“We know a lot about evolutionary principles at this point, but sometimes I think we’re a little bit hesitant to apply them to ourselves,” Madison stated. “I think that (this discovery) reminds us that we’re just one evolutionary outcome.”

Tocheri agreed. “It didn’t really rewrite what we knew, but it just explosively showed us that there was this whole other chapter.”

Masrur Jamaluddin in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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