Skeletons of halflings: was there a hobbit?

When, in the early 2000s, an international group of researchers led by Australian Mike Morwood began excavating at Lian Bois Cave in the central part of the Indonesian island of Flores, hardly anyone was expecting a sensation. A lot of bones were found in the cave, mainly local animals. The attention of scientists was attracted by the remains of several people who lived many thousands of years ago. Or, after all, not really people? The found skeletons belonged to very, very small individuals - their growth during life was only about a meter. The female skeleton LB1, found in September 2003 and received its own name, Flo, was best preserved. The young lady lived about 18, 000 years ago.

The ancient inhabitants of Flores received the scientific name Homo floresiensis, and in everyday life they were immediately christened "hobbits" in honor of the heroes of Tolkien, since the growth was quite consistent.

Interestingly, as early as 1955, the Dutch expedition found six miniature skeletons on Flores. They were considered the skeletons of negritos (one of the groups of the native population of the Malay archipelago), who lived from 30 to 40 thousand years ago.

It is believed that human intelligence is provided by a large brain. Its increase allowed our ancestors to master the manufacture of tools and making bonfires. If it turns out that a creature with a triple smaller brain was able to do the same, the accepted views will have to be reviewed.

The neighbors of the inhabitants of Lian Bois were huge rats, giant turtles, lizards, including the famous Komodos dragon, and the dwarf elephant Stegodon floresiensis - one of the species Stegodon, widely distributed in the Pleistocene, and now extinct. Stegodons, obviously, were an object of hunting - a lot of their bones were found in the cave. Flo herself was a little taller than a meter and had a brain volume of 417 cm3 - about a third of the brain of modern Homo sapiens. But near the bones, stone tools and charred bones of stegodons were found! It turns out that the miniature brain allowed us to make tools, use fire and hunt together. Stegodon of the Flores island is a dwarf one, but nevertheless an elephant weighed up to half a ton, there is no way to cope with it alone, joint organized actions are needed.

Skull removal

The news of the discovery of such an exotic hominid immediately sparked a flurry of criticism. Already in November 2004, the Indonesian scientist Teuku Jacob from the University of Gaja Mada said that Flo is a modern person, but suffered from microcephaly, which leads to brain underdevelopment and lag in physical development. Counterarguments appeared in March 2005, when Professor Dean Folk (Florida State University) unveiled the result of a comparative computer analysis of Flo's virtual skull model, which stated that the size of the hobbit’s skull was not a consequence of the disease.


The fate of the robinsons

Remember how Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of the book of Jonathan Swift, found tiny little people - midgets on an unknown island?

At the time of Swift, it never occurred to anyone that the discovery was biologically logical. And now we know that large animals that are isolated on an island or in some inaccessible area usually become smaller with the change of generations. On the islands there are no predators, and therefore it is not necessary to be a hero. But in a limited space it is sometimes difficult to eat, and then the Lilliputians have more chances - it is easier for them to feed themselves.

There are many examples of island dwarfism. This includes the Florentine species of Stegodon elephant mentioned in the text of the article and at least a dozen different species. Few people know that the last mammoths living on our planet belonged to the island variety - dwarf mammoths lived on Wrangel Island only 4-5 thousand years ago, on the threshold of the historical era. Examples of the same rule are dwarf elephants and hippos, who once lived on the Mediterranean islands, the Chondos (Japanese) wolf, extinct only about a hundred years ago, and a large number of other species. It is likely that the ancient archanthropes who came to the island of Flores about 900-800 thousand years ago should also be included here.

It should be noted that only large animals are subject to “island dwarfism”. Rodents and lizards, becoming robinsons, on the contrary, usually increase in size. The neighbors of our “hobbits” were giant rats - about Flo's knee-high. Well, the most terrible predator of the island was a lizard - a Komodo lizard, who survived to this day.

In the meantime, Dr. Jacob did an act not trivial for scientific polemic. Having received permission from only one of the project directors, he took to study most of the materials from the repository of the National Research Center for Archeology of Jakarta. The group that found the “hobbits” was only able to get their finds back after three months and was shocked by their condition: not only were the upper and lower jaws damaged in LB1, the pelvic bone was broken - two leg bones were lost!

Here is the time to clarify that although the remains of nine dwarf people were found in the cave, only one skull remained. This is what allows us to consider its size as the norm, and pathology - to taste.

One of the pioneers of the “hobbits, ” Mike Morwood (University of New England), bluntly called Jacob's actions “greedy and irresponsible.” Many were even tougher, arguing that by destroying the details of the skeleton that could tell about the nuances of the structure, proportions and movements of Flo (for example, gait), Jacob tried to falsify the results in favor of his theory. He, of course, rejected all the allegations, saying that the remains were damaged during transportation. Opponents replied that the nature of the damage indicates a careless casting. Amid the scandal, the Indonesian authorities have denied access to the cave. Some media then suggested that the reason for the ban was an attempt to help Dr. Jacob, making it difficult for his opponents to find new arguments. One way or another, but scientists were allowed to continue research in the cave only in 2007, after the death of Jacob.

Medical history

In subsequent years, several groups of scientists spoke out for the "painful" version. One of them compared the skull of LB1 with samples of microcephalic human skulls and found that its size was within the acceptable range for this pathology. In 2006, the authoritative primatologist Robert Martin of the Museum of Natural History named after Field (Chicago). In his opinion, Flo's brain is small even in order to consider it a chopping representative of Homo erectus, in order to maintain the proportions of this species, our distant relative should be a couple of times smaller. Martin said: he does not claim that the lady suffered from some kind of disease, but her brain is small, including in order to hope for reasonableness.

The ancient hominids, standing on two legs and moving from collecting bananas to hunting, began to grow steadily - greater physical strength gave more chances for survival. The growth of the famous Lucy (3.2 million years ago) was only 105 cm; for a million years, her descendants grew by a quarter meter. Homo erectus (H.erectus, 1.5 million - 300 thousand years ago) was already growing almost from us - 150-180 cm. Against this background, the Florentine “hobbit” at first glance looks illogical, but if you remember that he is an islander, then everything falls into place.

In 2008, Peter Obendorf from the University of Melbourne made an attempt to explain the appearance of Flo and her cave neighbors by a lack of iodine during the period of fetal development, which led to myxedema cretinism. This disease is not uncommon in the region; Patients with it, as a rule, do not grow above one meter, their limbs are shortened, the volume of the skull is reduced and the size of the Turkish saddle is increased (indentations in the body of the sphenoid bone of a human skull, saddle-shaped). All these signs are more or less present in the skeletons found on Flores.

Objections followed immediately. William Jangers (Stony Brook University, New York), after studying the skull, said that he did not find any signs of the disease. The already mentioned Dean Folk compared the computer model of Flo's brain with 19 brain models of modern microcephalic people and found a clear difference between the developed temporal and frontal lobes in the “hobbits” and the underdeveloped microcephalic. “Their brain has a number of distinctive properties that have never before been found in primates. In the process of evolution, it did not get bigger, but became more complicated, ”she said in an interview with the British newspaper The Independent.


Heirs of ancient civilization

The first ancient people settled on Flores no later than 800 thousand years ago. Apparently they were archanthropes - Homo erectus or his close relatives. Their remains have not yet been found, and there is nothing strange about this - in the tropical forest, organic matter is poorly preserved. But on the island, about 50 km west of the "hobbit cave", over the past two decades, about half a thousand stone tools have been found, typical of erectus and in many cases well dated. The thickness in which ancient incisors, punctures and other equipment were discovered is overlain by layers of volcanic ash below (880 thousand years ago) and above (800 thousand years, in both cases the error will be about 70 thousand years).

The found tools are primitive - these are flakes, broken off from one stone by a strong blow of another. Some of the resulting “blanks” were then sharpened by chipping off smaller flakes.

Studies of the limbs also testified not in favor of pathology. The structure of the humerus, its location relative to the elbow joint, individual features of the structure of the pelvic bone were more reminiscent of those of Homo erectus than of modern sapiens. Examination of the hands revealed many archaic features characteristic of erectus and even Australopithecus. According to one of the authors of the study, Dr. Matthew Tocherry of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, all this suggests that the ancestors of the "hobbits" separated from our evolutionary line before the advent of Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons.

Recognition problem

Recognition of Homo floresiensis as a separate species will require a review of a number of anthropological views, primarily regarding the relationship between the breadth of mind and brain size. Therefore, the presence of a fairly powerful "anti-Khobbit opposition" is not surprising.

However, very strong arguments testify in favor of the "hobbits" as an independent species. The stone tools found in the same layer with the bones do not resemble the products of healthy Homo sapiens in manufacturing method and size, and patients with cretinism could hardly have made them.

Finally, if the remains of Floo are the bones of a sick person, then why do her relatives have the same proportions? Reservation of terminally ill outcasts? But who then made stone incisors and gutted them elephants, even dwarf ones? Kindred? It is unlikely that society would have shown such touching concern for the demented 17, 000 years ago. Yes, and microcephals and myxedematous cretins live very briefly, and Flo, judging by the teeth and bones, was at least 30 years old.

The decisive word about the place of Flo and her relatives in history, apparently, will be said by geneticists. In 2006, two attempts were already made to extract mitochondrial DNA from a tooth found in 2003. Alas, the tropical climate for thousands of years has decomposed DNA into small fragments, and failed to collect them together.


Familiar handwriting

By the nature of the processing, the articles of the first settlers are practically indistinguishable from the “hobbits” tools - more than 3 thousand of them were found in the Lian Bois cave. Corresponding to the size of the flakes, their average number, separated from one core, a combination of radial and bilateral separation of flakes and much more. The authors of the study - a team of scientists from Australia, Indonesia and the Netherlands, published their results in Nature in 2006 - noted that perhaps the only noticeable difference between the "hobbits" and their predecessors is that several finds from Lian Bois cracked, hitting into the fire.

Modern people who appeared on Flores about 1, 500 years after its small inhabitants left the Lian Bois cave, already at that moment had polished stone tools, jewelry and other objects of material culture, indicating a completely different level of development. The assumption that sapiens suffering from microcephaly could, under the influence of dementia, reproduce the technology of working with a stone of a million years ago looks unconvincing.

Over the past five years, technology and methodology have changed. Firstly, it was decided to reduce the drilling speed so that the released heat does not destroy fragile molecules. Secondly, if the last time scientists tried to get to dentin (the internal tissue of the tooth) and extract DNA fragments from it, recent studies show that dental cement, or radicular cortex (that is, the tissue covering the roots of the tooth), contains five times more DNA than dentin! It is from it that it is planned to take samples.

The effectiveness of the methodology has already been tested in the case: a group led by Christina Adler, who will be engaged in this study, previously managed to extract mitochondrial DNA from a 6, 000-year-old pig’s tooth found in 2007 in Flores. This time the object of research will be a tooth found in Lian Bois in 2009. Perhaps the final "diagnosis" will be made this year.

Flores is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands. The length of the island is about 425 km, the width in the widest part is about 70 km. The population is about 1.5 million people. The island is covered with lush tropical vegetation. In the central part there are several volcanoes, the most famous of which, Kelimutu, last erupted in 1968. Flores' neighbors are the islands of Sumbawa (to the west), Timor (to the east) and Sumba (in the south). In the straits between them there are smaller land areas, including the famous island of Komodo. According to some estimates, at the peak of glaciation, when the level of the oceans fell, the straits could completely dry out.

Where did they go?

The bones of the "hobbits" and their tools in Lian Bois cease to be found at a depth corresponding to approximately 12, 000 years ago. Above lies volcanic ash. Perhaps the eruption led to their death? But somehow the little inhabitants of Flores were able to survive before this one of the worst cataclysms in the last two million years - the eruption of the Toba volcano, which happened 74, 000 years ago on the island of Sumatra. It was a global climate disaster: 800 km³ of ash were thrown into the atmosphere. Lush tropical forests died, many animals died out, the cooling caused by aerosol pollution lasted more than 1500 years, but the tiny inhabitants of Flores were able to survive.

Another point of view on the disappearance of the "hobbits" is a collision with a person of a modern kind. “Take a look at our track record, ” says Mike Morwood. - When Homo sapiens came to Europe 40, 000 years ago, they encountered the indigenous people of the continent, Neanderthals. "Their fate was a foregone conclusion: for several millennia, Neanderthals were completely exterminated." The same fate could have expected the inhabitants of Flores.

And finally, the boldest theory: what if the "hobbits" did not die out 12, 000 years ago? So, in particular, says Professor Gregory Fort. “In principle, there is no reason why the species that was present on the island for about 800, 000 years and last confirmed its presence only 13, 000 years ago could not hold out for a slightly longer period of time, by the standards of geology, ” he claims.

It is known that many years before the discovery of Flo's remains, ethnographers who studied the folklore of the local Nagakeo people recorded many stories about eguogos - dwarfs about a meter tall, with long hair, a large belly, a few protruding ears, an awkward gait, disproportionately long arms and fingers: floresian man in person!

The e-gogu translates as “gluttonous old women” - according to the stories, they all ate raw: fruits, vegetables, meat, and if the food was on a plate made of pumpkin peel, they also ate a plate. Little people spoke in a whisper and knew how to skillfully disguise themselves. For some time, the inhabitants of the settlement where this story was recorded endured the eguogo, despite the fact that they had ruined the gardens, but after the dwarfs killed and ate the child, they declared war: with the help of fire, the ecu gogo were expelled back into the woods . Two points are very important in this story (as in many others that suspiciously converge in details): storytellers talk about dwarfs as a real element of fauna and do not endow them with supernatural powers. And secondly, the described events occurred relatively recently, six generations ago (that is, at the end of the XVII - beginning of the XVIII century). And who knows, maybe the island of Flores has a far more intriguing sensation in its forests and caves than just bones?

The article was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 6, June 2011).

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