Approximately 17,000 years ago, on one of the Indonesian islands, a special species of ancient human lived. The tiny but clever Homo floresiensis is one of the greatest mysteries of paleoanthropology.
Matthew Tocheri takes bones from his backpack, followed by a skull no larger than a grapefruit. He carefully places it on the bed. He arranges the bones of the right shoulder and forearm, the pelvic bone, and finally the leg bones. Then he shakes out and spreads the finger phalanges of the hands and feet. And now, on the bed in a modest room in an Indonesian hotel, lies the skeleton of an ancient little human. For a moment, it feels eerie, but then you remember that it's just a replica.
Matthew Tocheri, a paleoanthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, USA), assembled the skeleton from artificial materials. The original is stored in a safe in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Indeed, it would be foolish to travel with a sculpted bust of Nefertiti or Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' in your backpack. Or to carry the skeleton of Lucy, the Australopithecus found in Ethiopia. Yet, in terms of uniqueness, the replica skeleton in Tocheri's backpack is no less valuable than any of these three great relics.
The official name of the skeleton is LB1. It encodes the name of Liang Bua Cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, where in 2003, the remains of a previously unknown human ancestor, Homo floresiensis, were discovered. But to the world, LB1 is better known as the 'hobbit,' because it is as small in stature as the fantastical creatures from Tolkien's novels. Looking at the one-meter skeleton, you might think it belonged to a five-year-old child. However, the 'hobbit' has worn teeth, like an old person, and arthritic joints. Presumably, LB1 died at the age of 30.
Equally remarkable is its anatomy. The cranial volume is approximately that of a chimpanzee, at 417 cubic centimeters, which is three times smaller than that of a modern human. In terms of the structure of the shoulder joint, LB1 resembles Homo erectus. And its facial features are reminiscent of Homo habilis, early members of the human lineage who were capable of crafting stone tools and disappeared no later than 1.5 million years ago.
The anatomy of the other parts of the LB1 skeleton is equally archaic: the pelvic bone is surprisingly similar to the lower spine of Australopithecus Lucy, even though they are separated by not only continents but also 3.2 million years. LB1 died just 18,000 years ago. This puzzles anthropologists who believe that at that time, the only remaining human species on Earth was Homo sapiens. 'Aliens would surprise me less than the remains of LB1,' admits Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist from the University of New England (Australia), who classified the 'hobbit' as a representative of a new hominin group.
The discovery became a 'bomb' that shattered the structured concept of traditional paleoanthropology. What place does the prehistoric dwarf occupy on the genealogical tree of humanity? Where did it come from? When and how did it end up on a volcanic island covering 13 thousand square kilometers, which most likely was never part of the continent?
In the limestone wall, adorned with plant roots, there is a wide opening. This is the entrance to Liang Bua Cave, the name of which translates to 'Cold Hole.' Matthew Tocheri and his Indonesian colleagues from the Archaeological Institute 'ARKENAS' in Jakarta spend all summer months under the gloomy vaults, from which stalactites hang.
Thomas Sutikna, the excavation leader, has been coming to Liang Bua since 2001. He carefully descends the bamboo ladders into one of the vertical shafts, which go down 16 meters into the earth. There, work is bustling. Workers stationed on narrow platforms at different heights pass buckets of sediment up, hooking them with long bamboo poles. As they descend into the shaft, layers of clay give way to layers of tuff and rock. For Sutikna, each layer of rock represents a milestone in the history of human evolution. The freshest layer tells the story of Homo sapiens. Traces of 'anatomically modern' humans can be found in the rock layer that formed approximately 11,000 years ago. Along with Homo sapiens, pigs, buffaloes, deer, monkeys, and hedgehogs appeared on Flores. But what was there before them?
In 2001, scientists excavating Liang Bua discovered a light layer of rock 3.5 meters deep - hard and smooth like concrete. 'My then-boss decided that we had reached the bottom of the cave and wanted to stop work,' recalls Sutikna. 'But I kept chipping away at the rock, and the seemingly impenetrable layer of volcanic ash, petrified by water saturated with limestone, began to crumble!' Beneath the volcanic 'concrete' was a 'secret chamber.' Scientists saw evidence of ancient human activity: wood charcoal, burned animal bones, stone tools... And slightly deeper, they found a thin layer of tuff - likely the edge of an ancient lake. 'These were the gates to the world of the 'hobbits,'' Sutikna remembers.
Likely, LB1 died on the shore of this small lake and, falling into the water, became buried under bottom sediments. There are no better-preserved fossil remains of hominins in the world. And none of such discoveries has sparked such intense debates.
A paleoanthropologist can gain worldwide fame from just a tiny bone. That's why scientists studying ancient humans don't spare their colleagues. For example, Mike Morwood, one of the leaders of the Australian-Indonesian research group studying LB1, was immediately accused of undermining all previous achievements in paleoanthropology with his scientific findings. Critics argued that LB1 was simply a Homo sapiens suffering from dwarfism. However, a similar 'diagnosis' was once applied to the first discovered Neanderthals and Homo erectus.
Another rival even tried to accuse Morwood of deception, claiming that dental fillings were found in LB1's teeth, implying he was at most 100 years old. One Indonesian paleoanthropologist even temporarily stole the fossilized remains of the 'hobbit' and conducted his own research on the bones.
However, the accusations did not help. The once seemingly unshakable ideas about the history of human evolution were shaken. To save face, proponents of traditional paleoanthropology feverishly searched through collections in museums worldwide for the remains of ancient microcephalics, whose skulls turned out to be smaller than usual due to various pathologies. Some even started measuring the pygmies who lived on Flores. But no fossil microcephalic, no pygmy remotely resembled LB1.
Further excavations in the 'Cold Hole' refuted the hypothesis that LB1 was a cripple among healthy island inhabitants. Tocheri and Sutikna didn't find other skulls, but they discovered numerous fragments of skeletons, presumably belonging to five or six cave dwellers who were apparently even shorter in stature than LB1. Moreover, some of them turned out to be much older than LB1, who was around 18,000 years old. Scientists determined that the age of the oldest remains from Liang Bua is about 95,000 years. This means that the 'hobbits' lived on Flores long before Homo sapiens, who migrated to Asia from Africa 60,000 years ago.
It appears that despite their small brain size, the 'hobbits' were very resourceful. 'They had their workshop here,' Sutikna points to a pile of stone fragments. 'They worked with silicon from the nearby river.' During the Liang Bua excavations, about 100,000 stone tools have already been found. Some items were crafted so skillfully that some researchers initially thought only fossil humans of the modern type could have made them. However, experts in ancient stone tools explained that it was a coincidence. Most of the items were made using primitive flaking techniques - the same method used to make much later hand axes and scrapers found in Africa.
Next to the stone tools, scientists found many animal bones with cut marks. This means that the 'hobbits' were not only craftsmen but also hunters. Their culinary preferences can be deduced by looking at a long, roughly hewn table that stands in the cave not far from the entrance. Paleontologist Jatmiko sorts bones, teeth, and stone tools. In front of him is a pile of rat ribs. 'These rodents were a favorite treat of Homo floresiensis,' he says. After all, the island rats grew to almost half a meter in length, so the skewers, it seems, turned out quite impressive.