Scientists named them Homo floresiensis because their diminutive hominin remains were discovered in a cave on the eastern Indonesian island of Flores. We call them “hobbits” because they remind us of JRR Tolkien’s diminutive Middle-earth characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. What no one can call them is “explained,” as details on their short span in hominin history is still a mystery. However, some new clues have emerged from the cave they were found as researchers switched from studying the remains of the hobbits to those of rats. Rats?
“Our paper is the first that we know of to use the leg bones of rats in this way to interpret ecological change through time, and it provides new evidence for the local environment during the time of Homo floresiensis.”
Elizabeth Grace Veatch, a PhD candidate at Emory University and co-author of a new study published in the Journal of Human Evolution, explains in a university press release that it really wasn’t hard to decide on studying rats for a while since nearly all of the bones in the Liang Bua cave are from animals and 80% of those are from rats. After identifying 10,000 rat bones, the team classified them into five species, each with different sizes ranging from mouse to (ironically) housecat. Each species was then linked to the type of environment they preferred to live in. they found that the middle-sized Komodomys rintjanus preferred the open open grasslands Flores had 100,000 years ago, while mousy R. hainaldi and the P. armandvillei, better known as the Flores giant rat, preferred the forests of 60,000 years ago. That’s about the time Homo floresiensis, pygmy Stegodons (a cow-sized elephant relative), giant storks, giant vultures and Komodo dragons disappeared from the cave.
“The evidence suggests that Homo floresiensis may have preferred more open habitats where they may have been a part of this scavenging guild of Stegodons, storks, and vultures. We think that when the habitat changed, becoming more forested, Homo floresiensis probably left the Liang Bua area, tracking these animals to more open habitats elsewhere on the island.”
The Scavenging Guild would be a great name for a band, but it doesn’t explain what animals the hobbits and friends were scavenging. One obvious guess would be rats, and Veatch is now giving the rat bones a closer look in hopes of finding teeth marks or cut marks from stone tools. While the Stegadons or the 6-foot-tall giant storks would obviously feed more hobbits, the under-four-foot hominins might have better luck hunting smaller game. To test that theory, Veatch is on the island trying to catch wild Flores rats. Really!
“In Indonesia, my nickname is Miss Tikus, which means ‘Miss Rat’. I’m perfectly fine with that because rats are really intelligent and extraordinary animals. We see them through the entire sequence in the archeology of Liang Bua and we will continue to use them in future studies to learn more about what went on in the cave.”
Whatever killed the hobbits, Stegodons and storks didn’t kill the rats. Perhaps that is the mystery Miss Rat should be trying to solve.