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Today’s science mystery: rapidly shrinking hobbits

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Ancestors of Homo floresiensis shrank in just 300,000 years

Hobbit skull University of Wollongong University of Wollongong

In 2004, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, scientists discovered a new hominin species they affectionately called the hobbit — a tiny, primitive human who was just 3 feet tall and lived between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago. But some researchers have argued that the remains — a skull, pelvis, jaw, and other bones — just belonged to a member of our own species whose growth had been stunted by illness.

Homo floresiensis was not "merely a sick modern human."

Now, researchers have announced that they found new fossils at a separate archaeological site on Flores, including teeth, a piece of jaw, and 149 stone tools, dating to 700,000 years ago. The findings, published this week in the journal Nature, suggest that the remains belonged to ancestors of the hobbits. These ancestors arrived on the Indonesian island about a million years ago. The study confirms that the hobbits, more properly called Homo floresiensis, were their own distinct species.

"This find quashes once and for all any doubters that believe Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human," Gert van den Bergh, from the University of Wollongong's Centre for Archaeological Science, who co-authored the study, told the BBC.

The hobbits evolved from a tall hominin species called Homo erectus, who lived in Indonesia at least 1.5 million years ago, according to the study. H. erectus eventually evolved to become us, but on Flores, H. erectus shrank from 5 or 6-feet tall to just 3-feet tall in a very short period of time, about 300,000 years. That's probably because the island's resources were quite scarce, the study authors say.

The hobbits' ancestors were possibly swept onto Flores by a tsunami

There's still one mystery: how did H. erectus go from Java to the island of Flores? It's unlikely it swam (the distance is too big) or built boats to get there (H. erectus was too primitive). The researchers think H. erectus was swept onto the island by a tidal wave or some other crazy event, like a tsunami.

To confirm today's study, scientists will have to find more fossils and tools.