Impact: Discovery of a previously unknown species of human

The unexpected news that another species of human had walked among us until relatively recently stunned the world.

In October 2004, the leading international journal of science, Nature, published two controversial papers announcing the discovery in 2003 of the remains of a previously unknown human species, Homo floresiensis, in Liang Bua cave on Flores – an island in eastern Indonesia. The fossil find was dubbed the ‘Hobbit’ due to its tiny stature.

The discovery – a result of a partnership between the Centre for Archaeological Science at UOW and the National Centre for Archaeology in Indonesia – radically challenged the prevailing theories of human evolution and dispersal across the globe.

The team used the latest scientific dating techniques to determine that the last-surviving population of Hobbits may have persisted long enough to encounter early members of our species as they spread through Southeast Asia to Australia.

The discovery continues to stir scientific debate, but the evidence accumulated over the past 11 years supports the original claim of Homo floresiensis being a new species of archaic human.

“It’s very hard to explain all of the primitive features we see in the Hobbit as the result of a modern human suffering from one or more medical ailments. There are simply too many anatomical anomalies, including details of the wrist bones and impressions left on the inside of the Hobbit’s skull,” according to UOW's Distinguished Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts.

The discovery is an intriguing piece of the larger puzzle of global human evolution and ancient extinctions. Past human activities in Liang Bua need to be explored with subsequent excavations, and other potential sites throughout Flores and on other islands in Indonesia represent the next step of archaeological research.

Much still remains to be known about the final days of the Hobbit, as well as the earliest period of existence of this dead-end branch of the human family tree. UOW researchers will continue to search for the ancestors and contemporaries of the Hobbit, to shed new light on where they lived in Indonesia, how they prospered in this remote region, and when and why they finally vanished from the face of the Earth.

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    Professor Mike Morwood
    Mr Thomas Sutikna
    Dr Gerrit van den Bergh
    Professor Chris Turney
    Dr Kira Westaway
    Professor Richard 'Bert' Roberts