They were about three foot six tall, kept well out of the way of the Big People, lived in holes in the ground, had a simple technology fashioned with long, clever fingers and, it can now be revealed, hung on in the real world until almost historical times. In an astonishing case of life imitating art, the remains of hobbits just like these have actually been unearthed in a cave in a hillside overlooking a river valley, in a remote and unspoiled part of Middle-earth. All that seems to be missing is the brass doorknob and (so far) confirmation of hairy feet.
In the 28th October issue of the science magazine Nature (www.nature.com/nature) an international team of researchers describe remains of an entirely unexpected party a skeleton of a tiny, human-like creature that lived on the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia, discovered there in September 2003 by researchers from the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta.
Founded by seafaring individuals of the ancient prehuman species Homo erectus that settled there almost a million years ago, these ancient colonists marooned and isolated — evolved their own way, shrinking, until by 18,000 years ago, they had reached the size of hobbits. I would have been less surprised if someone had uncovered an alien, says Dr Peter Brown, from the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, an anthropologist involved in the research.
As Charles Darwin discovered in the Galapagos Islands during the voyage of HMS Beagle, creatures confined to islands for long periods evolve away from their mainland forebears, becoming very distinctive. Sometimes they become much larger or smaller than those on the mainland. The island of Malta in the Mediterranean once had tiny elephants that could look eye to eye with giant swans. In a similar way, Flores was a looking-glass world of dwarf elephants, giant Komodo dragons, rats the size of retrievers and little people, no more than a metre tall and with heads the size of grapefruits. These people made sophisticated stone tools which the researchers think they used to hunt the elephants, if not to fend off the dragons until a volcanic eruption 12,000 years ago seems to have snuffed out this Lost World.
One of the remarkable things about the discovery is how recently the creatures lived. We are usually accustomed to thinking that extinct relatives of humanity all lived many thousands, or even millions of years ago, but to have a distinct species of the human family alive 18,000 years ago is unprecedented. At that time, modern humans (Homo sapiens) had been present in Indonesia for 20,000 years or so, yet they do not seem to have mixed with the strange indigenes of Flores.
Or did they? Persistent and extremely detailed folk-tales from Flores speak of encounters with a tribe of little people called ebu gogo that lived on the island until as recently as a century ago. Says team geochronologist Dr Bert Roberts of the University of Wollongong, in Australia, the researchers thought these stories no better than leprechaun stories — until we unearthed the Hobbit. Who knows what a search of the remaining rainforest on Flores or elsewhere might turn up? Explorers have been searching Sumatra for the orang pendek, a mythical hairy biped. Dr Michael Morwood of the University of New England, is co-director of the Flores excavation, working closely with his Indonesian counterpart R. P. Soejono of the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology. Next year they plan to explore caves on the island of Sulawesi, known, like Flores, for its unusual, endemic fauna. What next? Elves? Dwarves? .. Balrogs?