THE identity of the tiny human-like creature discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004 has become clearer -- and more astonishing -- thanks to a new analysis by Australian and Indonesian scientists.
According to a team led by Australian National University doctoral student Debbie Argue, not only is Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the hobbit, not a deformed modern human, as a handful of critics claim, but the small-brained, long-armed biped was the first human-like creature to walk out of Africa.
And it did so nearly two million years ago, roughly 100,000 years before a species most scientists believed was the first migrant. That was a somewhat more modern hominin -- a member of a group including humans and their ancestors -- that was discovered in Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia, variously identified as H.georgicus, H. ergaster or H. erectus.
"We're looking at a very archaic being indeed, one that appears to have gone its own evolutionary way long before our species emerged," Ms Argue said.
She noted that a population of hobbits lived on Flores from roughly 76,000 to about 13,000 years ago, seemingly unbothered by the emergence and expansion of modern humans.
"I think it's incredible that it lived until so recently," Ms Argue said. "Humans came down through Asia but missed Flores. It's lucky that Flores was hard to get to."
The findings, recently reported in the Journal of Human Evolution, back a similar argument made in the journal Science in 2007 that the hobbit's unique wrist anatomy suggested the 1m-tall creature came from a lineage that lived long before the common ancestor of people and Neanderthals.
Previously researchers suspected hobbits descended from H. erectus but had shrunk because of their confinement on an island.
In her study Ms Argue collaborated with discovery team co-leaders Mike Moorwood at the University of Wollongong in NSW and Thomas Sutikna at the Jakarta-based Indonesian Centre for Archeology. With ICA colleagues they compared 60 skull and skeletal features obtained from two individual hobbits to those of hominins, chimps and gorillas.
The technique, cladistic analysis, revealed hobbits probably took one of two evolutionary paths from Africa to Flores. One began 1.66 million years ago, the other 1.9 million years ago.
Three years ago a group headed by the University of Sydney's Richard Wright, including Ms Argue, reported complementary results in Journal of Human Evolution. They used a separate procedure, multivariate analysis, to determine which species the hobbit most resembled, not to tease out evolutionary relationships, as did Ms Argue's team.
Professor Wright said: "Before I did my analyses, I had an open mind about whether H.floresiensis was a deformed modern human or an early hominin.
"My analysis forced me to concluded that H.floresiensis was an early hominin in shape, like well-known fossils of H.erectus.
"So different methods and different data lead to the same result (ancient hominin, not deformed human).
"That's compelling science."