Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Find confirms Hobbit as a species

The new find is most likely a direct ancestor of H. floresiensis. Photo / Peter Schouten
The new find is most likely a direct ancestor of H. floresiensis. Photo / Peter Schouten

An ancient, metre-tall human discovered by a Kiwi and dubbed "the Hobbit" was an entirely separate species and not simply a deformed forebear of our race today.

That's the remarkable new finding by an international team of scientists, including an Auckland volcanologist, following the discovery of 700,000-year-old remains of what appears to be the Hobbit's ancestor.

In two studies published today in leading journal Nature, the researchers describe the jaw and teeth remains, from at least one adult and two children, they excavated at a site called Mata Menge on the Indonesian island of Flores.

It was the same island where, a decade earlier, scientists led by late Kiwi archaeologist Professor Mike Morwood discovered in limestone caves the partial skeleton of a small-bodied female adult creature, dubbed Hobbit.

That species, named H. floresiensis and later dated at between 100,000 and 60,000 years old, was set apart by its small body and brain size, receding forehead, short legs and large feet - hence the nickname.

Scientists believe these quirky creatures would have used stone tools, hunted small elephants, vied with giant komodo dragons and may have even used fire.

Because the new fossils show great similarity with those of the Hobbit, the researchers say it's likely they represent its direct ancestor and could even be regarded as an early representative of that species.

They suspect the dwarfed descendant of early Homo erectus, or upright man, somehow got marooned on the island - and that the Hobbit had already obtained its tiny size by at least 700,000 years ago.

Further, they say the discovery has huge implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution in the region - and quashes once and for all any doubters that believe the Hobbit was merely a sick modern human with deformities or congenital disease.

Associate Professor Brent Alloway, of the University of Auckland's School of Geography, has been working at Mata Menge, spending about one month each year there.

He described his role - examining the geological environment where the fossils were found so areas with similar geological characteristics could be targeted in the hunt for more fossils - as "the dream of a lifetime".

"[New Zealand's] archaeological history, although quite colourful, is also quite recent," he told the Herald.

"But when you go back and look at deposits and stone tools that were discarded there over a million years ago, it's just mind-boggling."

The sole Kiwi involved in the project, Associate Professor Alloway said it was a "huge privilege" to continue the legacy of Professor Morwood, whose own career in archaeology began with his studies at the University of Auckland in the early 1970s.

"Sadly, he passed away from cancer in 2013. He was a remarkable man and we got along brilliantly."

He expected further work on the island would yield more fascinating insights.

- NZ Herald

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