Diminutive 'Hobbit' people vanished earlier than previously known

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The extinct human species dubbed the “Hobbit” vanished from its home on the Indonesian island of Flores far earlier than previously thought, according to scientists who suspect our species may have had a hand in these diminutive people’s demise.

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Researchers on Wednesday said they recalculated the age of bones of the species, named Homo floresiensis, found inside a Flores cave, and determined it disappeared about 50,000 years ago rather than 12,000 years ago as previously estimated.

The Hobbit’s discovery in 2003 created a scientific sensation. Homo floresiensis stood 3-1/2 feet tall (106 cm), possessed a small, chimpanzee-sized brain, used stone tools and may have hunted pygmy elephants.

The researchers said there is not yet direct evidence the Hobbit people encountered Homo sapiens but noted that our species was already on other islands in the region at around that time and had reached Australia by about 50,000 years ago.

Geochronologist Bert Roberts of Australia’s University of Wollongong said it was possible Homo sapiens played a role in the Hobbit’s extinction and the issue would be a major focus of further research.

“To me, the question is, ‘Would the Hobbits have become extinct if humans had never made landfall on Flores?’ And the answer is ‘no.’ We were likely the decisive factor in their demise, but we still need to find hard evidence to back up this hunch,” Roberts said.

Numerous animals disappeared on Flores at the same time, said paleoanthropologist Matt Tocheri of Canada’s Lakehead University and the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program. These included small elephants, giant marabou storks, vultures and large Komodo dragon lizards.

After fresh excavations from 2007 to 2014 improved the understanding of the cave site, the scientists re-evaluated the ages of sediment containing Homo floresiensis remains and the actual bones.

The Hobbits’ skeletal remains were 60,000 to 100,000 years old while their stone tools were 50,000 to 190,000 years old, said archaeologist Thomas Sutikna of the University of Wollongong and Indonesia’s National Research Centre for Archaeology.

Homo sapiens first appeared in Africa about 200,000 years ago and later trekked to other parts of the world, encountering other human species like Neanderthals who went extinct not long afterward.

The previous assessment that the Hobbits had lived as recently as 12,000 years ago indicated they had survived for perhaps 40,000 years after our species reached the region. The new results show this was not the case.

The research appears in the journal Nature.

Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler