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In the past some anthropologists have argued that even in prehistory humans could adapt to new environments by inventing new tools or behaviors rather than by physically evolving, like other creatures. The dwarfing seen on Flores is powerful evidence that humans aren't exempt from natural selection. The discovery of Hobbit is also a hint that still other human variants may once have inhabited remote corners of the world.

In spite of their downsized brains, the little people apparently had sophisticated technology. The fireplaces, charred bones, and thousands of stone tools we found among their remains must have been their handiwork, for we found no sign of modern humans. Stone points, probably once hafted onto spears, turned up among stegodont bones, some of which bore cut marks. The little hominins were apparently hunting the biggest animals around. It was surely a group activity—adult stegodonts, although dwarfed, still weighed more than 800 pounds (363 kilograms), formidable prey for hunters the size of preschool children.

The discovery underscores a puzzle going back to Theodor Verhoeven: How could ancient hominins ever have reached Flores? Was Homo erectus a better mariner than anyone suspected, able to build rafts and plan voyages? And it raises a new and haunting question. Modern humans colonized Australia from mainland Asia about 50,000 years ago, populating Indonesia on their way. Did they and the hobbits ever meet?

There's no sign of modern humans at Liang Bua before 11,000 years ago, following a large volcanic eruption that would have wiped out any Homo floresiensis in the region. But other bands may have hung on elsewhere in Flores. Perhaps modern humans did meet their ancient neighbors before something—maybe a changing environment, maybe competition or conflict with modern humans themselves—spelled the end for the little people. Further excavations on Flores, and on nearby islands that might have had their own hobbits, may settle the question.

In the meantime a clue may come from local folktales about half-size, hairy people with flat foreheads—stories the islanders tell even today. It's breathtaking to think that modern humans may still have a folk memory of sharing the planet with another species of human, like us but unfathomably different.

The Australian Research Council supported this work; your Society will help sponsor future study.

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