Imagine stepping between enormous ferns and entering a world filled with horse-size elephants, rats the size of dogs and ten-foot-long dragons. As you make your way through the gigantic flora, you stumble upon a massive turtle basking in a ray of sunshine. To your left, a strange, colourful bird cries out and takes flight. It sails over a small pool fed by a crystal clear spring and surrounded by blue and pink hydrangea and wild flowers of vibrant colours.
In the distance, you see a caldera atop an inactive volcano. You imagine it is filled with water. High peeks on the horizon sharply contrast the deep valley in which you stand. Sniffing the air, you smell the unmistakable odour of sulfur. There must be a hot spring nearby.
Movement to the right catches your eye, but what had caused the leaves to shake has gone deeper into the shadows. You approach cautiously. What was it? A child?
Breaking through the thick leaves, you enter a clearing. You stop and gaze in awe at the biggest waterfall you’ve ever seen. Then you notice someone watching you, and they become more fascinating than the waterfall. The human-like creature is only three feet tall. Short, light brown hair covers most of its body. Their large, dark eyes stare at you, probably wondering the same as you are: who are you?
Do you believe this scene could happen? No? Guess again. It could have happened 12,000 years ago on the island of Flores, Indonesia where a human species that grew to about three feet tall lived in caves.
Homo floresiensis, as the new species was named, was discovered in 2003 by Indonesian and Australian archaeologists. The group had originally set out to find evidence of the original human migration of Homo sapiens from Asia to Australia. What they found was much more exciting.
Mike Morwood and his colleagues unearthed the skeletal remains of nine individuals, including one for an almost complete thirty-year-old female, in Liang Bua Cave on Flores. The skeletons were dated to be from 13,000 to 38,000 years old, indicating the cave may have been some type of burial place. Further examination indicated one arm bone was about 74,000 years old.
Stone tools found inside the cave range from 13,000 to 94,000 years old which means the inhabitants never threw anything away.
At first, the archaeologists believed they had found a child’s skeleton, but after examining the worn molars and fused skull, they were amazed to learn the three-foot, three-inch human was an adult. The shape of the pelvis indicated the sex to be female. This is when the science world sat up and took notice. Who were these people?
As it turns out, they were an extinct species in the Homo family tree, taxonomic tribe of Hominini. Some experts argued floresiensis was not a new species at all and instead a deformed or diseased sapien, perhaps one with microcephalic. But these ideas have been rejected. Mounting evidence supports the fact it’s a new species.
When the discovery was made, the intact female was given the nickname Little Lady of Flores or Flo for short. Some made a connection to the miniature creatures in J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and gave her the nickname of Hobbit. But this lady was no hobbit. Perhaps instead she was a hauflin. We may never know.
What we do know is Little Lady of Flores, who weighed a mere 55 pounds, shared her island of flowers with Stegodons (dwarf elephants), giant rats (the size of dogs), Komodo dragons and larger species of lizards. As if by magic, everything on the island had large had shrunk and everything small had grown.
That’s not to say floresiensis became hauflin size from living on the island. There was no evidence uncovered that suggested a taller human lived there. In fact, all the skeletal remains indicate height had not changed.
Height aside, let’s talk about the brain because an animal is just an animal if it doesn’t communicate, use tools and such. Did Lady of Flores have the capacity to think and execute a well-planned idea? The answer is yes! In spite of the chimpanzees-sized brain, it appears floresiensis were capable of many things: cooking with fire, forming hunting parties to take down large prey, crafting and utilizing tools and communicating. They may have even possessed language.
As it turns out, over-all brain size is irrelevant to intelligence. What’s more important is the size of Brodmann’s area 10, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain which indicates the level of intelligence. Lady of Flores’ area 10 is the same size as modern humans.
These miniature humans had slightly longer arms compared to modern humans but lacked a chin. Their feet were flat and long compared to their bodies. The big toe was very short.
H. sapiens reached the area around 45,000 years ago which means it’s highly likely the two species had met and possibly intermingled.
A major volcanic eruption about 12,000 years ago is suspected to be the demise of floresiensis along with other animal and plant life on the island.
It’s believed by some that a few floresiensis may have survived the eruption on other parts of the island, and had lived long enough to create the Ebu Gogo stories by the Nage of Flores. It’s been told that Ebu Gogo were small, hairy, language-poor cave dwellers. It’s believed they lived when the first Portuguese ships arrived in the 1500s, and some claim they existed well into the 1800s. In fact, as late as the 1990s, a sighting was reported of a human-type creature about the size of floresiensis on the island of Sumatra. They’re called Orang Pendek, which may be a direct descendant of H. floresiensis. Very little is known about this creature and although sightings number into the hundreds, no one has captured its image.
It’s incredible to think, but there’s speculation that floresiensis may still exist in the unexplored tropical forest of Indonesia. It’s like a fantasy world on Flores and only those with the right magic get to see what’s really there.