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‘Hobbit’ Ancestor Bones Found

Archaeological excavations of Holocene deposits at Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores are seen in progress in this undated handout picture courtesy of the Liang Bua Team.
‘Hobbit’ Ancestor Bones Found
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Small human-like creatures lived in Indonesia 50,000 years ago, and a recent study found evidence of their much older ancestors.

Scientists working in Indonesia say they found several teeth and part of a jawbone that date back 700,000 years.

The scientists are with the Research Center of Human Evolution at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Two reports describing the findings appears this month in the journal Nature.

The researchers said the teeth and bones are from small creatures, or similar ones, that lived before what they call “hobbit” hominin.

The name hobbit comes from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. It is used to describe members of an imaginary race. In Tolkien’s stories, hobbits are similar to human beings, only smaller.

Scientists have used the term hobbit to describe ancient human-like creatures, measuring only about a meter high. Not only were hobbits small in height, they also had small heads. But their feet and toes were big for their size. The hobbits are hominins — a group that includes modern humans and human species that no longer exist.

The newly discovered fossils belong to an adult and two children. The older hobbit was about the same size as its much younger relative.

The remains were found in 2014 on the Indonesian island of Flores. They were discovered about 70 kilometers from an opening in the ground where scientists found the first hobbit fossils over 10 years ago. Scientists named these creatures “homo floresiensis.”

A model of a Homo floresiensis skull — the original was found on a remote Indonesian island — is held by an employee at the Science Museum in London.
A model of a Homo floresiensis skull — the original was found on a remote Indonesian island — is held by an employee at the Science Museum in London.

That first fossil discovery created much talk about what these small creatures are, and how they got to Flores.

The new fossils are from a bigger species that arrived on the island about a million years ago. The Australian researchers say the creature began to shrink over time in a process called “island dwarfism.” According to Nature, supporters of this idea think that the creature became dwarfed — or smaller -- in just a few hundred thousand years because of a lack of food or other resources on Flores.

Island dwarfism is something well known among animals. Some animals are up to six times smaller than their ancestors because of a lack of resources. There was just less to go around on an island. For example, at one time, Flores was home to a very small elephant-like animal.

The new finding put an end to the idea that hobbits were just sick or underfed homo sapiens -- the scientific name for humans.

“The hobbit was real,” archeologist Adam Brumm told AFP. “It was an ancient human species that is separate to ours and that no longer exists on the planet today.”

Brumm was lead writer of one of the studies published in Nature. He works at Griffith University’s Research Center of Human Evolution.

But there is still debate as to what the hobbits really are, and from where they came.

Scientists hope that the new fossils can help researchers decide what the older species was, and how the hobbits came to be their small size.

One possibility is that hobbits are a dwarfed version of homo erectus—the first human-like creature to leave Africa.

Other scientists have also studied hobbits. They say qualities like the creature’s long, flat feet could mean that it came from a smaller, more primitive human relative. Such possibilities include Homo habilis or Australopithecus, known only from remains in Africa.

Researcher Gerrit van den Bergh is with the University of Wollongong in Australia. He spent four years looking for the hobbit’s ancestors. In 2014, he was about to give up at the end of the year.

“We had given up hope we would find anything, then it was ‘bingo!’,” van den Bergh told Nature. He said they had a huge party with dancing and food to celebrate the discovery.

I’m Anne Ball.

This story appeared on Anne Ball adapted the story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

fossil – n. something (such as a leaf, skeleton, or footprint) that is from a plant or animal which lived in ancient times and that you can see in some rocks

dwarfism – n. the condition that causes a person, or creature, to stop growing before reaching normal adult size

primitive – adj. of, belonging to, or seeming to come from an early time in the very ancient past

bingo – expression. A word used to announce a successful result that is quick or unexpected