"Hobbit" Island Tools Predate Modern Humans, Study Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 31, 2006
Long before the dawn of modern humans, relatively sophisticated tools were being made on the Indonesian island of Flores, a new study says.

Scientists who believe the creatures to be a separate human species have dubbed them Homo floresiensis. Their Lord of the Rings nickname comes courtesy of their height—about 3.3 feet, or 1 meter.

(See pictures of the "hobbits.")

Discovered in 2004, the hobbits survived until about 12,000 years ago, and stone implements have been found alongside remains that date from about that time.

But new analysis of strikingly similar tools found at a nearby site called Mata Menge has dated the Mata Menge implements to 800,000 years ago, according to the study.

The similarity suggests that H. floresiensis humans—who had tiny, grapefruit-size brains—were capable craftspeople who inherited their toolmaking tradition from ancestors who evolved on Flores, researchers said. (See "'Hobbit' Brains Were Small but Smart, Study Says" [March 2005].)

Previously some scientists had cited the complexity of the Flores stone tools as evidence that the hobbit-like people were diseased modern humans rather than a unique species.

Both sets of tools—from the Liang Bua cave and the older Mata Menge archaeological site—share hallmarks of simple but sophisticated flaking and shaping, according to Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the Australian National University in Canberra.

At 800,000 years old, the Mata Menge tools are "way too old to have been made by modern humans," Brumm said in an email.

The earliest evidence for modern humans is from 195,000 years ago in Ethiopia, he adds.

"Our interpretation of the similarities between the Mata Menge and Liang Bua technologies is that a single hominin lineage made the same kinds of stone tools on Flores for over 700,000 years, probably a lot longer," Brumm said.

Hominins, or hominids, include recent humans as well as extinct ancestral and related forms.

"The lineage resulted in Homo floresiensis, found at Liang Bua."

Brumm, Australian colleagues, and collaborators from the Geological Research and Development Center in Bandung, Indonesia, will report their analysis in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

The older Flores tools were found among remains of dwarf elephants, komodo dragons, rats, and other animals, according to the paper.

Unknown Lineage

Richard Potts is the director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He said the concept of a continuous toolmaking tradition on Flores—a remote and isolated island—makes sense.

However, the new study fails to prove continuity of a stone-toolmaking tradition passed down an ancestral line.

The study authors "have only two data points, and they are just connecting the two points," Potts said.

To prove continuity, the team needs tools from a few other Flores sites dated between the 800,000-year and 12,000-year marks, he added.

And regardless of continuity, Potts says, the new study fails to resolve the debate over who the hobbit-like people are descended from.

According to one theory, they resulted from island dwarfing—a process by which species tend to shrink over generations on small islands where food is scarce—of the large-bodied early human Homo erectus.

But recent studies have suggested that the bone structure of the hobbit-like people is more like smaller-bodied australopithecines—a group of human ancestors that are not considered human.

"That part remains a mystery. I don't think the stone tools will tell us [the answer]," Potts said.

Precision Toolmaking

The relative simplicity of the Flores tools implies that a sophisticated modern-human brain was not necessary to make the tools, according to study author Brumm. Even so, the toolmakers were capable craftspeople, he adds.

"There is a lot of precision in the manufacture of these tools, which is striking because traditional interpretations of early hominin tool technology in Southeast Asia imply that it is crude and rough flaking," he said.

Potts said the simple yet elegant Flores tools force scientists to rethink the factors that drove the evolution of the big brains humans benefit from today.

"There's a long tradition in [the study of fossil hominids] that somehow brain size and complexity of technology are tied up with one another," he said.

According to Potts, perhaps the need to process larger geographical and social landscapes drove evolution towards bigger brains—a need not found on tiny Flores.

For example, in Africa around the time modern humans originated, stone toolmakers were using resources from more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) away, Potts says.

The tools "were exchanged between groups. And so you have this spatial manipulation of the landscape, including the social landscape, associated with all that brainpower," he said.

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