Jan 28, 2007
Homo floresiensis … eruption wipeout theory disputed. Photo: Robert Pearce
MODERN humans wiped out the hobbit-sized people who lived on the Indonesian island of Flores, research suggests.
Remains of at least 13 members of the little species, Homo floresiensis, who were about a metre tall, were unearthed in Liang Bua between 2001 and 2004. The hobbits lived there from 95,000 to 12,000 years ago when a layer of volcanic ash filled the cave.
It had been thought the eruption devastated life on Flores and led to the demise of the little people, as well as the pygmy elephants they feasted on.
Studies of the volcanic ash by two team members, Chris Turney and Douglas Hobbs, however, showed it was from an eruption about 600 kilometres to the west, near Bali, and so was unlikely to have resulted in island-wide extinctions.
Mike Morwood, co-leader of the Australian and Indonesian discovery team, said he now believed modern humans, who arrived on the "lost world" of Flores soon afterwards, hunted the stegadon to extinction and were responsible for the disappearance of the hobbits.
In a separate development, excavations are set to restart for the first time in almost three years in the cave where the remains of the tiny new species were found.
Indonesian officials had blocked further research there following a heated public dispute over the precious bones.
Professor Morwood, of the University of Wollongong, said more fossils were likely to be unearthed at Liang Bua when the team returned in the middle of the year. "Anywhere we dig in the cave we expect to find evidence of the little hominids." Professor Morwood, who has written a new book with Penny van Oosterzee, The Discovery of the Hobbit, on the famous find, said he was most excited by the prospect of making new discoveries during planned field work in Sulawesi, which will begin in March.
This island was the most likely source of the hobbits' ancestors. "My guess is that hominids arrived on Sulawesi a long time before a small group were somehow washed out to sea, to be deposited on Flores," he said. "It is now the place with real potential to surprise."
The tool-making Homo floresiensis which had a brain only the size of a chimpanzee, is thought to have evolved from a small, primitive human ancestor similar to australopithecines such as "Lucy", who lived 3 million years ago in Africa.
The dispute over the remains broke out when they were seized in 2004 by an Indonesian scientist who said the hobbits were just brain-deformed modern humans.
The bones were irreparably damaged when in his care.