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Tigra Scientifica: Death of the Hobbits

Photo courtesy of Flickr via Karen Neoh

You may have thought that hobbits were just the brainchild of J.R.R. Tolkien, but fossils were discovered on an Indonesian island in 2003 that suggest otherwise. 
Homo floresiensis, an extinct hominin relative of humans (Homo sapiens), was nicknamed the “hobbit” because of the diminutive stature seen in their fossils.
Researchers initially dated their fossils back to as recently as 11,000 years ago. This would suggest that H. floresiensis survived long after modern humans reached the area approximately 50,000 years ago.
However, new chronological evidence published in Nature by Dr. Thomas Sutikna and colleagues suggests that the actual date of the youngest fossils are closer to 50,000 years old, which leads to the question: Did contact with modern humans cause the demise of H. floresiensis?
Similar to Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, H. floresiensis stood around three feet tall and weighed between 60 and 70 pounds. Compared to modern humans, H. floresiensis had smaller brains, but their fossils were accompanied by stone implements that may have been used like tools. What remains to be known about H. floresiensis are questions of behavior, including whether or not they used language to communicate.
Researchers have so far been unable to retrieve any DNA from fossilized remains of H. floresiensis. Thus, it remains to be seen how genetically similar H. floresiensis is to modern humans.
At the time when the the H. floresiensis fossils were first discovered, researchers relied on radiocarbon dating – a method that measures the amount of a radioactive isotope of carbon there is in a material. The less radioactive carbon, the older the material.
Seeing as the fossils were the only existing fossils of H. floresiensis, they were considered too valuable to use radiocarbon dating on, so instead researchers dated charcoal found near the fossils.
The results, published in 2004, suggested that the fossils were only 11,000 years old, puzzling scientists. How could H. floresiensis and humans have lived side by side for well over 30,000 years?
Using several different dating methods on sediment from the area where the fossils were found, Sutikna and colleagues showed that the youngest fossils were actually closer to 46,000 to 50,000 years old.
This timeline correlates closely to when modern humans are thought to have reached Indonesia, so it may be possible that humans caused the extinction of H. floresiensis.
As we have known of H. floresiensis for just over 10 years, their story, written in the language of archaeology and paleontology, is just beginning to be told.

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