Indonesian 'hobbit' humans became extinct longer ago than previously thought
Extinct mini humans from Indonesia nicknamed "hobbits" vanished thousands of years earlier than had previously been thought, new research suggests.
The creatures, which stood a mere 3.5ft tall, caused a sensation after they were discovered in a cave on the island of Flores in 2003.
Scientists decided they belonged to a distinct species, Homo florensiensis, which lived in the Liang Bua cave as recently as 12,000 years ago.
There was even speculation that some hobbits may have survived to the present day, giving rise to mythical stories of small, hairy people known locally as Ebu Gogo who raided villagers' crops.
The new findings indicate that H. florensiensis disappeared from Flores no later than 50,000 years ago, about the same time early modern humans - the ancestors of people living today - were arriving in Australia.
Whether the two species ever encountered each other is not known.
The earlier dating mistake arose because hobbit bones and stone tools were wrongly associated with recently deposited young sediments from the cave, according to researchers writing in the journal Nature, which published the original discovery.
Professor Richard Roberts, from the University of Wollongong, Australia, who oversaw the analysis used in the new study, said: " We dated charcoal, sediments, flowstones, volcanic ash and even the H. floresiensis bones themselves using the most up-to-date scientific methods available.
"In the last decade, we've vastly improved our understanding of when the deposits accumulated in Liang Bua, and what this means for the age of 'hobbit' bones and stone tools. But whether 'hobbits' encountered modern humans or other groups of humans - such as the 'Denisovans' - dispersing through Southeast Asia remains an open and intriguing question."
The original hobbit found in the cave was a skeleton whose skull would have housed an extremely small chimpanzee-like brain.
Though a fully grown adult, measurements of its limb bones revealed a creature only about 106cm (3.5ft) tall.
This hobbit was initially thought to be about 18,000 years old. Bone fragments of other individuals were estimated to have been deposited as long ago as 95,000 years and as recently as 12,000 years.
The finds suggested that hobbits were still inhabiting Liang Bua cave almost 40,000 years after the first modern humans passed through the group of islands to which Flores belongs.
According to the new research all the skeletal remains of hobbits found to date are between 100,000 and 60,000 years old.
None of the stone artefacts thought to have been made by the species are believed to date back further than 50,000 years.
A number of animal species, including vultures, giant marabou storks, a pygmy elephant and Komodo dragons - giant lizards - mysteriously vanished from the site at the same time.
Co-author Dr Matt Tocheri, from Lakehead University in Canada, said: " Lots of people may have interesting ideas about why these taxa disappear together like this, but the truth is that we don't know precisely why - and we won't know with any certainty until much more work is done at Liang Bua and other sites on Flores."