Ever since 2003, when scientists first found fossils of an ancient tiny species of human (Homo floresiensis) on the Indonesian island of Flores, they have been scrambling to assemble a timeline. When did these so-called "hobbits" go extinct? Did they ever live alongside modern humans?
Now new evidence has emerged that narrows down the historical overlap between these two Homo species, and it may even hint at what caused the hobbits to go extinct, reports Phys.org.
The most recent dates assigned to the bones of Homo floresiensis, originally found within a limestone cave called Liang Bua, place them between 190,000 and 60,000 years old. Meanwhile, stone tools associated with the diminutive humans found at the site have been dated to as recently as 50,000 years old. Based on this data, it's now believed that the hobbits likely went extinct shortly after this date, perhaps between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.
The question is, did modern humans (Homo sapiens) pass through this region before the hobbits went extinct?
Thanks to a recent discovery at Liang Bua by researchers from the University of Wollongong Australia and Indonesia's National Research Centre for Archaeology, we may have an answer. They uncovered evidence of fire places within the cave that date from between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago. The discovery of fire use at the site is important because there's no evidence of fire there during the roughly 130,000 years of known habitation by Homo floresiensis.
This either means the hobbits didn't learn to use fire until just before going extinct, an unlikely hypothesis, or it means some other creature that knew how to use fire had taken over the site. That other species could only have been us, Homo sapiens.
"We now know that the hobbits only survived until around 50,000 years ago at Liang Bua. We also know that modern humans arrived in Southeast Asia and Australia at least 50,000 years ago, and most likely quite a bit earlier," explained Dr. Mike Morley, lead author on the study.
The new timeline therefore shows that some overlap was certainly possible between the two species of human. But the narrow overlap is also curious for another reason: it may hint that the encounter was what caused the hobbit extinction.
Modern humans would have had superior technology, size and intelligence. It's therefore probable that the arrival of Homo sapiens and their technology could have snuffed out the tiny hobbits by outcompeting them for resources. In a manner of speaking, the hobbits may have been smoked out by modern humans' use of fire.
Despite the unfortunate effect of this interaction, it's remarkable to imagine a time when multiple species of human may have encountered one another. It harkens to Tolkien-like fantasy worlds, only instead of Middle Earth, this encounter may have really happened thousands of years ago on a small, unassuming Indonesian island named Flores.