At first we thought it was a child, perhaps three years old. But a closer look showed that the tiny, fragile bones we had just laid bare in a spacious cave on the Indonesian island of Flores belonged to a full-grown adult just over three feet tall.
Had we simply found a modern human stunted by disease or malnutrition? No. The bones looked primitive, and other remains from Liang Bua, which means "cool cave" in the local Manggarai language, showed that this skeleton wasn't unique. It was typical of a whole population of tiny beings who once lived on this remote island. We had discovered a new kind of human.
Back in the lab, where we analyzed the bones and other artifacts, the full dimensions of what we had discovered began to emerge. This tiny human relative, whom we nicknamed Hobbit, lived just 18,000 years ago, a time when modern humans—people like us—were on the march around the globe. Yet it looked more like a diminutive version of human ancestors a hundred times older, from the other end of Asia.
We had stumbled on a lost world: pygmy survivors from an earlier era, hanging on far from the main currents of human prehistory. Who were they? And what does this lost relative tell us about our evolutionary past?
A 220-mile-long (354 kilometer) island between mainland Asia and Australia, Flores was never connected by land bridges to either continent. Even at times of low sea level, island-hopping to Flores from mainland Asia involved sea crossings of up to 15 miles (24 kilometer). Before modern humans began ferrying animals such as monkeys, pigs, and dogs to the island about 4,000 years ago, the only land mammals to reach it were stegodonts (extinct elephant ancestors) and rodents—the former by swimming and the latter by hitching a ride on flotsam. No people could have reached Flores until modern humans came along, with the brainpower needed to build boats. Or so most scientists believed.
Yet in the 1950s and '60s Theodor Verhoeven, a priest and part-time archaeologist, had found signs of an early human presence. In the Soa Basin of Flores he found stone artifacts near stegodont fossils, thought to be around 750,000 years old. Homo erectus, an archaic hominin (a term for humans and their relatives), was known to have lived on nearby Java at least 1.5 million years ago, so Verhoeven concluded that erectus somehow crossed the sea to Flores.
As an amateur making extraordinary claims, Verhoeven failed to persuade the archaeological establishment. In the 1990s, however, other researchers used modern techniques to date tools from the Soa Basin to about 840,000 years ago. Verhoeven was right: Human ancestors had reached Flores long before modern humans landed. But no actual remains of Flores's earlier inhabitants had ever turned up.
So we went looking, focusing on Liang Bua, in the uplands of western Flores. By September 2003 our team of Indonesian and Australian researchers, assisted by 35 Manggarai workers, had dug 20 feet into the cave floor. Younger layers were rich in stone artifacts and animal bones, but by this point the dig seemed played out.
Then, a few days before the three-month excavation was due to end, our luck changed. A slice of bone was the first hint. The top of a skull appeared next, followed by the jaw, pelvis, and a set of leg bones still joined together—almost the entire skeleton of Hobbit.