"Lord of The Rings" fans may know hobbits as the Shire-dwelling, diminutive relatives of the human race who live in underground homes known as hobbit-holes. Scientists, however, are increasingly using the term to describe a recently discovered ancient hominin that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores 700,000 years ago.
The species, known as Homo floresiensis, was approximately the size of a chimpanzee or about three-feet high with a small brain and long arms. Researchers first discovered the creature in 2004 and claimed the species could have been living as recently as 12,000 years ago. But recent analyses showed the species more likely disappeared 50,000-60,000 years ago.
Newly discovered fossils from a site named Mata Menge have shed new light on the history and lineage of Homo floresiensis. The so-called hobbits may have first arrived from a nearby island in a tsunami or some other large natural weather phenomenon, according to researchers.
While initial analysis led some scientists to conclude that the species was naturally small or may have suffered from a deformity like microcephaly, researchers now say hobbits may have in fact descended from larger ancestors and shrunk over generations of coping with meager resources on the island. The island of Flores contains evidence of human tools that are 1 million years old, meaning that the species could have shrunk to its hobbit size in the span of 300,000 years. The data for the shrinking theory is still limited, and researchers are looking for fossils from when the first humans arrived to the island.
"We were expecting to find something larger than what we found, something closer to the size of the original founder population, Homo erectus, but it turns out that they were as small, if not smaller, than Homo floresiensis," said Gert van den Bergh, the head researcher who lead the team from the University of Wollongong's Centre for Archaeological Science, the BBC reported. "The rapid evolution seems quite fast, but we have no examples of human or primates [shrinking] on other islands to compare it to."