Within J.R.R. Tolkien's famous novels of epic fantasy, readers are taken to the fictional realm of Middle Earth, where a wide variety of different humanoid beings coexist... though not always peacefully.
Perhaps most famous and cherished among the Middle Earth dwellers had been the diminutive hobbits, and in particular, those famed Bagginses of Bag End who, unlike the other Hobbits who avoided excitement or any kind of danger at all costs, seem to have carried a traditional (if not hereditary) yearning for travel and adventure.
It seemed only fitting, then, that in 2003, with the discovery of an ancient variety of the Homo species that stood a mere 3.5 feet tall, the creature would be dubbed the "Hobbit", though the creature's technical name is Homo floresiensis.
And, ever since the discovery of the ancient hobbits on the island of Flores, Indonesia, controversy has been their constant companion. Initially thought to have been a far more recent species, data forthcoming since their discovery had moved back the timetables on their presence alongside modern humans from as recently as 12,000 years ago, to the current estimate that Homo floresiensis became extinct closer to 60,000 years ago, if not much earlier.
Darren Curnoe, writing for PhysOrg wrote recently that, "the Hobbit was first believed to be just a mere 18,000 years old, though its age has now been revised to between 100,000 and 60,000 years old. This is way too young given the way the Hobbit looks! And while I don't doubt it's accuracy, it's still shockingly young."
Shocking though it is, we might still want to ask, is it really that young? By this, we mean to ask whether it is really so unfathomable that something similar to humans, but of vastly different size and other morphological characteristics, might have existed so recently, at least in terms of geological time.
There are even more recent examples of discoveries that, like the humble little Homo floresiensis, should cause us to doubt the current timetables applied to modern humans existing as the sole homo-inhabitants of Earth. Back in 1979, a group of fossils that included the partial skull of an unusual cave-dweller were found in Red Deer Cave and Longlin Cave, in the Yunnan province in China. More recently, radiocarbon dating of the fossils showed that they dated to between 14,500 and 11,500 years old.
In other words, if Homo floresiensis living even as recently as 60,000 years ago is "shockingly young", then the Red Deer and Longlin Cave people must seem freakishly so, since they would have coexisted with some of the early paleo-indian groups that were already migrating into North America by that time (and by some estimates, had already been there for a time).
Such discoveries are shocking to us because they do cause us to have to think about a variety of seemingly unusual things, such as "how did these ancient people get around?", and of course, "how many different species of humans were there as recently as 20,000 to 100,000 years ago?" Indeed, when we consider the potential for different varieties of ancient humanoids who existed contemporaneously in the ancient (but still relatively recent) past, maybe at times the ancient world does almost begin to resemble the fantasy landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien, at least to some extent.
Another question which arises in relation to Homo floresiensis is how they reached the island of Flores in the first place. One of my favorite quotes about the use of ancient watercraft comes to mind here, courtesy of archaeologist J.M. Adovasio, who noted in his book Strangers in a New Land: What Archaeology Reveals About the First Americans that there exists an, “almost irrational resistance to appreciating the importance of watercraft in the peopling saga" (for more on this, see my article, "The First Sailors: Did The Mysterious First Americans Arrive in Watercraft?"). This, of course, must remain an item of conjecture, since there is no surviving evidence of how the first colonists arrived on Flores, although the "irrational resistance" to watercraft is, in itself, a fascinating piece of the ongoing mystery of our ancient ancestors and their mobility.
Curnoe also notes in his blog that, "despite the disagreement among these studies, they do mark a maturing of discussions surrounding the Hobbit. We seem to have finally said goodbye to the destructive personal attacks of the past and moved onto figuring out what the Hobbit really is."
Indeed, it is hopeful to see that, even among scientists who have differing opinions, personal attacks and rampant skepticism in relation to those things which don't fit easily into the generally accepted narrative are falling somewhat to the wayside, at least with regard to the "Hobbits" of Flores. In order for science to move forward, there must be a willingness to accept new ideas, which, after careful review and consideration, sometimes will shake up the current existing paradigms.