The Indonesian “hobbits” or the Homo floresiensis could have died out earlier than thought, says a study published online on March 30 in the journal Nature. Instead of becoming extinct sometime between 11,000 through 13,000 years ago, this ancient species of tiny humans discovered in Indonesia probably ceased to exist 50,000 years ago.

This suggests that the Homo floresiensis who lived on the remote island of Flores in Indonesia may have never co-existed with modern humans for tens of thousands of years. The scientists say that previous studies mistakenly took the main layer containing the Hobbit bones from an overlaying layer with similar composition but is actually younger.

“In fact, Homo floresiensis seems to have disappeared soon after our species reached Flores, suggesting it was us who drove them to extinction,” says Maxime Aubert, a geochronologist and archaeologist at Griffith University’s Research Centre of Human Evolution (RCHE).

Cave where the remainings of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003, Lian Bua, Flores, Indonesia. Photo by Rosino.

Cave where the remainings of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003, Lian Bua, Flores, Indonesia. Photo by Rosino.

The remains of the tiny humans were discovered in 2003 at Liang Bua, a limestone cave in Flores. The research team from this mission believed that the Hobbits have lived on the island for a million years and evolved from an older branch of humans. However, they speculated that the species went extinct 12,000 years ago.

The new research team, composed of Indonesian scientists and scientists from RCHE, asserts that the previous mission has only covered a small portion of the cave. The new team realised that the original team actually took samples from a younger layer.

“The youngest Hobbit skeletal remains occur at 60,000 years ago but evidence for their simple stone tools continues until 50,000 years ago,” Aubert adds. “After this, there are no more traces of these humans.”

The Hobbits could have also resided in other caves in the island, possibly providing more insights about them. Nevertheless, the research team points out that the cause of the Hobbits’ extinction remains unclear. Adam Brumm, an RCHE archaeologist, theorises that the human’s modern ancestors probably surpassed and eventually replaced them, just like what our ancestors did to the Neanderthals in Europe.

“They might have retreated to more remote parts of Flores, but it’s a small place and they couldn’t have avoided our species for long,” suggests Brumm.  “I think their days were numbered the moment we set foot on the island.”