Since 2003, scientists have been puzzled over how the Homo floresiensis, famously known as hobbits, went extinct. Now, a study published on June 30 in the Journal of Archaeological Science claims that modern humans or Homo sapiens were to blame for their disappearance.

Researchers from the University of Wollongong Australia (UOW) and Indonesia’s National Research Centre for Archaeology discovered physical evidence of fire places at the Liang Bua cave in the Indonesian island of Flores, dating between 41,000 and 24,000 years ago. There is no evidence of the use of fire in this area during the 130,000 years the Homo floresiensis lived here so the most likely users of these fire places were modern humans.

The fire places are believed to have been used for cooking or for warmth. Modern humans have better technology, higher intelligence and bigger body size, which they probably used to out-compete the hobbits for resources.

Dr Mike Morley, from the University of Wollongong, Australia, with a sediment sample taken from Liang Bua. Credit:Paul Jones | University of Wollongong

Dr Mike Morley with a sediment sample taken from Liang Bua. Credit:Paul Jones/University of Wollongong

“We now know that the hobbits only survived until around 50,000 years ago at Liang Bua. We also know that modern humans arrived in Southeast Asia and Australia at least 50,000 years ago, and most likely quite a bit earlier,” says lead author Mike Morley, a geo-archaeologist at UOW’s Centre for Archaeological Science. “This new evidence, which is some of the earliest evidence of modern human activity in Southeast Asia, narrows the gap between the two hominin species at the site.”

The researchers used micro-morphology, a technique to microscopically assess the sediments recovered from the site. The tiny samples, which measure 30 microns thick, were brought back to the university. Radiocarbon dating techniques were also employed.

While this news could rewrite history books, the researchers admit that further research is still needed. They are still looking for more evidence that will close the gap in time between the two hominin species or show that both lived at the same time and most likely interacted with each other.

The homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003 by researchers including the ones from UOW. They were called hobbits because they only grew up to one meter tall. Previously, scientists thought that they were simply very short humans due to a disease but recent investigations show that the hobbits were actually a different species.