Paris. Flores, which has been at the center of archaeological debate since the skeletal remains of tiny humans were found in 2003, might have been colonized by humans much earlier than thought, scientists said on Wednesday.
Humans settled the island in East Nusa Tenggara around a million years ago, at least 120,000 years sooner than previously estimated, the scientists reported in the journal Nature.
Flores created international headlines seven years ago when archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a group of “hobbits,” who measured only a meter tall, weighed just 30 kilograms and had the brain the size of a chimp’s.
The extraordinary discovery sparked an intellectual battle that has raged ever since.
On one side are those who say the hobbits — whose nickname is inspired by the little people of J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales — are a separate species of human, whom they honor with the Latin name Homo floresiensis, or Man of Flores. On the other are those who dismiss the tribute, and argue that the hobbits were just diseased Homo sapiens, with a disorder that made them midget-like.
The new study is based on the dating of a layer of volcanic sediment covering Stone Age tools found at a location called Wolo Sege, in the Soa basin of Flores.
“We don’t know which hominins made the million-year-old tools because, regrettably, no human fossils were found with the tools,” lead author Adam Brumm, from Australia’s University of Wollongong, said in an e-mail.
“However, our working hypothesis is that the Soa Basin toolmakers were the ancestors of … Homo floresiensis, an argument that is supported in some ways by the close similarities between their stone tools.”
The previous timing for the arrival of hominins, a term that covers humans and chimps, was 880,000 years ago, thanks to evidence at a site called Mata Menge, just 500 meters from Wolo Sege.
That date coincided with the mass death of two animal species on Flores, a dwarf elephant called Stegodon sondaari and a giant tortoise named Geochelone.
That prompted some experts to pin the animals’ extinction on humans, whose expansion had been linked to species loss through hunting or habitat destruction.
But the new research suggests that, for once, man may not be to blame. The cause of these animals’ demise may well have been a volcanic eruption that blanketed the area, or other natural causes, including climate change, it says.
The hobbit remains, found farther west in the cave of Liang Bua in 2003, were about 18,000 years old, which means the hominids were contemporaries of Homo sapiens, or modern man.
If the hobbits are accepted as a separate species, it remains unclear how and when they emerged. According to theories, they may have descended from branches of the human lineage known as Homo erectus or Homo habilis.