Did you know that hobbits actually originated in Flores? We usually think of hobbits as fictional characters like Samwise and his gang of merry little men, tramping onwards in Tolkien’s celebrated Lord of the Rings series. But a more recent discovery by scientists of skeletal remains on Flores, has led to research into Homo Floresiens is or ‘Flores Man’, who was nicknamed ‘the hobbit’ due to his short stature and diminutive size.
In the late 90’s, a group of scientists from Indonesia and Australia were in Flores looking for evidence of human migration between the Asian and Australian continents. Scientists had theorised that the many similarities in appearance and culture between the indigenous peoples of these countries, as well as the prevalence of many of the same animals and plants, was due to migration.
In 2001, while investigating this theory, scientists found tools that seemed to pre-date the existence of mankind according to previously established timelines. Then in 2003 while digging in Liang Bua Cave on Flores, they made the exciting discovery of human bones. LB1 is now an almost complete skeleton, measuring 1.1metres in height, weighing no more than 25kg and was estimated to be around 30 years of age at her time of death. She is called the ‘Little Lady of Flores’ or ‘Flo’ for short.
There are now nine partial hobbit skeletons and while it was originally thought that Flores Man was about 12,000 years old, dating of bones and artefacts found with the skeletons actually puts the hobbit between 50,000 to 190,000 years old.
Now, intense research is underway to determine exactly who ‘Flo’ and Flores Man were. Some believe that Flores Man came to Flores many years ago, and that his unusually small size was due to climate and environmental conditions. However it is more commonly believed that Flores Man is in fact a distinct species of man that co-existed and lived side by side with Homo sapiens or Homo erectus. There is strong evidence to show that there are genetic and anatomical differences separating this man from other species of mankind.
Researchers involved the local people who live near Liang Bua in their investigations. Known as the Rampasasa tribe, they are a group of pygmies, and scientists were curious to see if there were any genetic similarities to connect the hobbit to the Rampasasa.
They enlisted translators to help with Indonesian and Manggarai dialect to explain the study they wanted to carry out. The Rampasasa group were mostly happy to be involved as they wanted to know more about their history. As the scientists were unable to extract DNA from the hobbit skeleton and directly compare, instead they looked for what was missing or what was alike. Then they compared the DNA from the Rampasasa people to other populations across Asia. They found nothing in common with the hobbit, however they found genetic similarities between the Rampasasa and the people of Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and Bismarck Archipelago. It also showed their migration was more recent than that of the Flores Man. This again gave weight to the theory that Flores Man was a separate species of man.
Flores is one of the Wallacean Islands, islands separated by the Wallace Line and the Lydekker Line. Referred to as a Wallacean Island as Flores has rarely, if ever, been connected to other parts of Asia or Australia by land bridges or land movement. Questions remain for scientists to continue to be baffled by and attempt to solve: How did the Flores Man get to Flores so long ago? Could this explain the species found only in existence on Flores such as the infamous Komodo dragon?
As a child, I spent hours searching through stones and rocks in our neighbourhood bushland, pretending to be an archaeologist making scientific discoveries. Researching the Flores Man had me re-discovering my long buried interest in archaeology and yearning to pack my bags in search of exploration and adventure.
If the archaeologist adventurer in you is inspired after reading this, we suggest further reading of our sources listed below. Plus you should probably book a trip to Flores and plan your own exploration of the beautiful islands!