We knew we had made a stunning discovery, but we didn't dare remove the bones for a closer look. The waterlogged skeleton was as fragile as wet blotting paper, so we left it in place for three days to dry, applied a hardener, then excavated the remains in whole blocks of deposit.
Cradled in our laps, the skeleton accompanied us on the flight back to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. There Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist from the University of New England in Australia, supervised cleaning, conservation, and analysis. The pelvic structure told him Hobbit was a female, and her tooth wear confirmed that she was an adult. Her sloping forehead, arched browridges, and nutcracker jaw resembled those of Homo erectus, but her size was unique.
It wasn't just her small stature and estimated weight—about 55 pounds (25 kilograms)—but a startlingly small brain as well. Brown calculated its volume at less than a third of a modern human's. Hobbit had by far the smallest brain of any member of the genus Homo. It was small even for a chimpanzee.
The tiny skull is most reminiscent not of the hefty Homo erectus from elsewhere in East Asia but of older, smaller erectus fossils. Viewed from above, the skull is pinched in at the temples, a feature also seen in the 1.77-million-year-old Dmanisi people from Georgia, in western Asia. And in some respects, such as the shape of her lower jaw, the Liang Bua hominin harks back to even earlier fossils such as Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus from Ethiopia.
And yet—strangest of all—she lived practically yesterday. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal pieces found next to the skeleton, together with luminescence dating that indicated when the surrounding sediments were last exposed to the sun, revealed her 18,000-year age. By mid-2004 our excavation at Liang Bua had yielded bones and teeth from at least six other individuals, from about 95,000 until as recently as 13,000 years ago.
For a few skeptics, all this is too much to swallow. They argue that the one complete skull must have come from a modern human with a rare condition called microcephaly, in which the brain is shrunken and the body dwarfed. The other small bones, they say, might be the remains of children. But last year's discoveries include part of a second adult skull—a lower jaw—that is just as small as the first. It simply strains credibility to invoke a rare disease a second time.
Instead, Hobbit is our first glimpse of an entirely new human species: Homo floresiensis. Her kind probably evolved from an earlier Homo erectus population, likely the makers of the tools Verhoeven found. Her ancestors may have stood several feet taller at first. But over hundreds of thousands of years of isolation on Flores, they dwindled in size.
Such dwarfing is often the fate of large mammals marooned on islands. There they generally face fewer predators—on Flores, Komodo dragons were the only threat—which makes size and strength less important. And the scarce food resources on a small island turn a large, calorie-hungry body into a liability. On mainland Asia, stegodonts sometimes grew bigger than African elephants; at Liang Bua they were only a bit bigger than present-day water buffalo.