"Hobbit" Island Tools Predate Modern Humans, Study Says

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.

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