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New fossil find backs up existence of ancient hobbit-humans

J.R.R. Tolkien incorporated Hobbits into his fantasy universe decades ago, but in 2003 scientists uncovered fossils believed to be from a previously unknown human species bearing an uncanny resemblance to Hobbits. The species was discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores, and was thus dubbed Homo floresiensis. Not everyone was convinced by the initial discovery, but now a team has unearthed fossils from a second site that could confirm the existence of real hobbits.

The first Homo floresiensis fossils were discovered in a cave at a site called Liang Bua and dated to 50,000-100,000 years ago. The fossils were definitely hominid in origin, but the adults stood only 3.5 feet tall and had very small brain volumes. However, this is based on just one fully intact skull. From this and other less intact specimens, researchers pieced together a picture of human ancestors that grew no larger than children and fashioned crude stone tools with their limited mental faculties.

The problem with identifying any new species from a small sample of remains is that you can’t be sure if you’re seeing an accurate representation of said species. Some archaeologists have refused to accept H. floresiensis as a valid and distinct species. They claim that this could simply be a population of another hominid that suffered from a genetic abnormality, like a malfunctioning thyroid, leading to deformities. That sounds much less magical than a race of hobbits living on a Southeast Asian island.

In hopes of backing up the classification of H. floresiensis as a distinct species, researchers from multiple universities teamed up to search other areas of Flores. The team uncovered a cache of hominid fossils in 2014 and has now published its findings in Nature. The new fossils were found at a site called Mata Menge, but they aren’t more examples of H. floresiensis — they might be even better. The creatures from Mata Menge are almost as small as the cave hobbits (the jaw bone at the top of the post would fit in the palm of your hand), but they’re much older at roughly 700,000 years.

Homo floresiensis

The team claims the Mata Menge hobbits are closely related to the previously discovered creatures from Liang Bua. The Mata Menge hobbits, however, share more features with larger hominids like modern humans and our direct ancestors. They say this backs up the idea that ancient hominids ended up stuck on the island of Flores and experienced an extreme case of island dwarfing, a process by which successive generations get smaller when confined to an island. This has never been seen before in hominids.

Not everyone is convinced by the new evidence. Some don’t agree with the team’s analysis showing that the Mata Menge hobbits are related to the ones from Liang Bua. Still, two distinct groups of hobbit-like humans on the island is important. The search continues for incontrovertible proof, but for now the hobbits are looking more real.

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