Ancient versions of island 'hobbits' unearthed

Ancient versions of 3ft tall "hobbits" discovered on an Indonesian island have been unearthed by scientists - and they appear to be even smaller than the originals.

Fossil bones of at least three Lilliputian humans dating back 700,000 years were found on the island of Flores, 43 miles from the spot where the first Homo floresiensis remains were uncovered in 2003.

Not only were they much older than their descendants, thought to have become extinct 50,000 years ago, but evidence suggests they were even tinier.

One fossil fragment came from an adult jawbone 20% smaller than its smallest more recent hobbit counterpart.

The new finds also include six teeth, among them two milk teeth belonging to infants.

Scientists believe the discovery lends weight to the theory that hobbits - nicknamed after the short, humanoid creatures in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings saga - evolved from an early ancestor of modern humans, Homo erectus, that became stranded on the island and shrank in size.

Dr Yousuke Kaifu, one of the researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan, said: "All the fossils are indisputably hominin and they appear to be remarkably similar to those of Homo floresiensis.

"The morphology (shape) of the fossil teeth also suggests that this human lineage represents a dwarfed descendant of early Homo erectus that somehow got marooned on the island of Flores.

"What is truly unexpected is that the size of the finds indicates that Homo floresiensis had already obtained its small size by at least 700,000 years ago."

The original hobbits, found in a cave known as Liang Bua, were at first thought to have lived on Flores until as recently as 12,000 years ago.

Later scientists revised this estimate and decided the creatures had probably been extinct for around 50,000 years.

The much older hobbits now described in the journal Nature were excavated from an ancient river bed at Mata Menge, a site 70km (43 miles) from Liang Bua.

When the first hobbits were found some experts claimed they could be modern humans affected by microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads.

Dr Gert van den Bergh, from the University of Wollongong in Australia, whose team uncovered the new fossils, said: "This find has important implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution in the region and quashes once and for all any doubters that believe Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human (Homo sapiens)."

The scientists believe the ancient hobbits lived in hot, dry savannah-like grassland with a wetland component.

Simple stone tools similar to those associated with H. floresiensis were discovered in the same sandstone rock layer as the fossils.

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