Stranger Than Fiction: Once Upon a Time, Real "Hobbits" Fought Real Dragons on a Tiny Island in Indonesia
12.14.12 by BJSprecher
High fantasy adventures on the big screen are among the most thrilling, enthralling movies to watch because of the fantastical people, places and monsters that populate them. They allow us to escape from our comparatively mundane lives by offering us a glimpse into another world, another reality where magic is real and noble heroes go on quests and do battle with dragons and other fantastical creatures. However, even some of the most fantastic elements of this genre of popular fiction are not the stuff of myth, but of history. In fact, not too long ago, diminutive "Hobbits" living in Indonesia were forced to protect their "Hobbit holes" from the deadly dragons that claimed the island as their own.
The Strange Truth
In 2003, a joint Australian-Indonesian team of archaeologists searching the Indonesian island of Flores for evidence of the migration of Homo sapiens from Asia to Australia unearthed the bones of what appeared to be an entirely new species of hominins. In total, eight skeletons dating from between 38,000 and 13,000 years ago were excavated.
The discovery of a new species of human is incredible in and of itself, but what was truly amazing is that these humans were no more than three feet tall when mature, with remarkably small brains for a people capable of crafting sophisticated stone tools. Initially dubbed "LB1" for the Liang Bua Cave where the first bones were found, and later nicknamed the "Hobbit," after the diminutive, furry-footed heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien's wildly popular fantasy novels, the researchers actually suggested Homo hobbitus as the official scientific name for the species. Homo floresiensis was later chosen as the name, after the island where the species lived in the distant not-too-distant past.
To this day, some scientists contest that Homo floresiensis, or "Flores man," is truly a new species, suggesting instead that Flores man's small stature is attibutable to a neurological or genetic disorder. Proponents of Flores man being classified as a new species point out that the bone structure differs significantly with that of modern humans, with the shoulders, arms and wrists structurally more similar to chimpanzees. As for why Flores man would be so small, it is hypotheized that the limited food supply on the island caused the population to evolve a smaller body. This type of "insular dwarfism" is evident in several other species found on the island, including elephant-like Stegodons the size of water buffaloes that in other areas of the world were 13 feet at the shoulder and 26 feet long.
Flores man lived a difficult existence, finding shelter from the elements in the many caves on the island, but having to contend with all manner of terrifying creatures, from giant rats to Komodo dragons and crocodiles. However, it was likely the introduction of Homo sapiens to the region around 45,000 years ago that eventually did in the real life Hobbit.
The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: There and Back Again (2013), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2014)
Besides humans, many other species of humanoids live in Tolkien's elaborate fantasy world Middle-earth, including the Istari (wizards), Elves, Dwarves and the Hobbits, described by Tolkien as an offshoot or "relative" of man. Though similar to man in nearly every way, Hobbits are only half the height of the average man and prefer to live in "Hobbit holes" in the earth, rather than in homes built above ground. Despite their diminutive stature, Hobbits are the heroes of both of Tolkien's most famous Middle-earth adventures, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and, like Flores man, they were forced to contend with otherwise normal creatures grown to gigantic proportions and dragons. Though Flores man had yet to be discovered in Tolkien's day, the presence of other, smaller humans like Hobbits in popular fiction could be attributable to some distant ancestral memory we all share of a time when we co-existed with Flores man and other, as yet undiscovered species.