A human ‘hobbit’ ancestor may be hiding in Indonesia, according to a controversial new book

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About 700,000 to 60,000 years ago, a small primitive human roamed the island of Flores in present-day Indonesia. Homo floresiensisnicknamed the “hobbit” because he was only about 3 feet 6 inches (106 centimeters) tall, was a toolmaker with a small brain and big feet, and no one knows where he evolved from.

Now An Anthropologist Says No One Really Knows That H. floresiensis died out – and that it could survive to the present day. In a new book, Gregory Forth, a retired University of Alberta anthropologist, argues ‘ape-man’ reports of Flores may be sightings of the ancient human ancestor, still active today. today.

“We just don’t know when this species became extinct or dare I say – I dare say – we don’t even know if it’s extinct,” Forth told Live Science. “So there is a possibility that he is still alive.”

Needless to say, this is a dramatic claim, and the experts who study H. floresiensis are skeptical.

“Flores is an island about the same size as Connecticut and has two million people living there today,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The population is spread all over the island, he added.

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“Really, the idea that there’s a large primate that’s not observed on this island that survives in a population that can sustain itself is pretty close to zero,” Hawks told Live Science.

A long lost relative

Forth sees it differently. He has been doing anthropological field research on the island since 1984 and since then he has heard local stories of small hairy humanoid creatures living in the forest. He wrote about these tales in his research until 2003, when H. floresiensis was discovered. It was then, he told Live Science, that he made the connection.

“I heard about these little human-like creatures in an area called Lio that were said to be still alive, and people were talking about what they looked like,” Forth said. In an extract of his new book, “Between Ape and Human: An Anthropologist on the Trail of a Hidden Hominoid,” (Pegasus Books, 2022), Forth describes an interview with a man who says he got rid of the corpse of a creature that couldn’t have was an ape but also not human, with straight, light-colored hair on his body, a well-shaped nose, and the tip of a tail. Over the years, Forth has collected 30 eyewitness accounts of similar creatures that he said fit the description of H. floresiensis.

Of course, there are many eyewitness accounts of cryptic creatures around the world, such as Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, said Mark Collard, an evolutionary anthropologist based at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Humans are adept at telling stories and believing them, Collard told Live Science, and those stories can easily become central to people’s beliefs.

The stories of these “ape-men” on Flores are different from those of Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, Forth explained, because there were never any non-human apes in North America. But in Flores, he says, H. floresiensis undoubtedly existed.

But how long have they existed? H. floresiensis bones were first discovered in Liang Bua Cave in Flores in 2003. The youngest evidence that hobbits use the cave dates back 50,000 years, said Elizabeth Veatch, a zooarchaeologist at Emory University who studies the cave. ‘species. Modern humans only appeared on Flores 47,000 years ago, Veatch told Live Science, and there is no evidence that the two species overlap in Liang Bua Cave. In reality, H. floresiensis did not use the site 60,000 years ago, she said.

“Based on faunal evidence, there was likely an environmental change that occurred around 60,000 years ago that altered the landscape around Liang Bua, which caused Homo floresiensis migrate elsewhere on the island to forage in more suitable habitats,” Veatch said.

Between ape and human, by Gregory Forth

Between ape and human, by Gregory Forth (Image credit: Pegasus Books)

In 2014, archaeologists discovered another site on Flores, Mata Menge, with a fossil mandible and teeth of a hominin dating to around 700,000 years ago. These bones are thought to come from a much older population of H. floresiensis. Stone tools were also found at the site.

These findings suggest that H. floresiensis has a long history on Flores (the species has not been found on any other island). But anthropologists and archaeologists have seen no indication that the hobbit lived alongside modern humans.

It’s possible they did, for a while, Thompson said. And if so, perhaps the stories of the Lio region in Flores are a very deep cultural memory. In Australia, Indigenous peoples have stories that clearly correspond to real events that happened thousands of years ago, including a dramatic meteor strike. Something similar could happen on Flores, Thompson said.

“What we could have is a situation where [H. floresiensis] potentially persisted in the mythology for a very long time,” she told Live Science.

But Thompson, too, was skeptical that a 3-foot-tall primate could go largely unnoticed on Flores until modern times.

“We discover species that we think are extinct in science, it happens,” she said, “But those are small things. It’s not something that would be so noticeable.”

Collard accepted. “I just think we have to be very careful with oral history,” he said. “I think it has value, but it has to be approached with skepticism.”

mysterious ancestor

That doesn’t mean that H. floresiensis is not mysterious. The two sites containing bones and tools of the primate date hundreds of thousands of years from each other, leaving a huge gap in history. Researchers know that the hobbit used cobblestones to make sharp stone shards, knife-like tools that could have been used to cut plants or meat or to carve other wooden tools, Hawks said. We don’t know if H. floresiensis used fire or hunted large prey.

Perhaps the biggest question about H. floresiensis that’s where the species comes from. Anatomically, the “hobbit” has teeth that are very similar to those of others Homo species such as Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. H. floresiensis’ presence in Indonesia around 700,000 to 800,000 years ago predates H. sapiens’ arrived by a huge margin.

H. erectushowever, left Africa 1.8 million years ago and arose on what is now the island of Java before H. floresiensis in the fossil record. This raises the possibility that the hobbit is descended from H. erectus and possibly he developed short body size due to island life, a phenomenon called island dwarfism.

But there are problems with this assumption. On the one hand, Thompson told Live Science, H. erectus survived on other Southeast Asian islands at its usual size until about 115,000 years ago, and it would be strange if island dwarfism only occurred on Flores and nowhere else for hundreds of thousands of years. And H. floresiensis has many anatomical features, such as his shoulders and wrists, which look less like his Homo cousins ​​and more like earlier human ancestors such as Australopithecines.

One of the caves where bones of the species Homo floresiensis were found

One of the caves where bones of the species Homo floresiensis were found. (Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald / Contributor via Getty Images)

“Anatomy doesn’t make it clear,” Hawks said.

Anatomical evidence suggests that H. floresiensis could have been descended from a human ancestor who left Africa before H. erectus, Collard said. If so, scientists have yet to find archaeological evidence of who this ancestor was or when he left.

Whatever the story of the trip, it must have been amazing. The tiny H. floresiensis or its ancestors crossed continents and rough waters to land on the island of Flores. (There was always open water there, Collard said, even as sea levels rose and fell over hundreds of thousands of years.) that human ancestors did much more than anthropologists and archaeologists believed possible.

“Was it an accidental rafting situation? Was this a deliberate rafting situation? said Collard. “It seems unlikely, but were they able to use boats?”

Overlapping populations?

What human origins researchers are now learning is that interactions between early populations of Homo species were extraordinarily complex. It is now common knowledge that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, and that Neanderthals DNA persists in modern humans. Humans in Oceania and East Asia also crossed with another human ancestor, Denisovans, of whom little is known. Remarkably, Hawks said, Denisovan genes persist in populations from eastern Indonesia, suggesting that these human relatives also lived on those islands. However, no fossil records have been found of the Denisovans in eastern Indonesia so far.

The oldest rock art on record also comes from Indonesia, in the form of a painted red pig on the island of Sulawesi 45,500 years ago.This art may have been made by Homo sapiens.

There is no evidence that humans and H. floresiensis never crossed. Scientists did not find any unknown genes in the modern Indonesian genome that could go back to the small hominid. The time the fossils were found suggests the hobbit could have lived happily on Flores until modern humans showed up and wiped it out, inadvertently or not, Hawks said.

“It’s very plausible that modern humans are responsible for its extinction,” he said.

Or maybe there is more recent H. floresiensis fossils waiting to be found that will prove that both Homo species overlap. The past decade has been a golden age for Indonesian archeology and international collaborations between local scientists and the rest of the world, Hawks said. More discoveries are almost certain to come.

“The fact that we only have a handful of sites that represent almost a million years of habitation from some of these places tells us there’s a lot we haven’t found” , Hawks said.

Originally posted on Live Science

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