700,000-year-old hominin remains discovered on remote island of Flores

The 700,000-year-old fossilized remains discovered on the isolated Indonesian island of Flores appear to be ancestors of Homo floresiensis.

The newly discovered remains of the Mata Menge hominin come after many years of systematic searching following the discovery of Homo floresiensis in the same region in 2004. The Mata Menge hominin is even smaller than Homo floresiensis which was dubbed the ‘Hobbit’ and only stood at one meter tall.

The new findings published in Nature (here) not only carry implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution. They also dispel notions that Homo floresiensis were just modern humans (Homo sapiens) who suffered from diseases that caused dwarfism. Furthermore, Oceanic islands, like Flores, will be of increasing interest to archeologist as they hope to discover other species that lived in isolation.

We speak with the authors of today’s Nature article, Adam Brumm, Griffith University and Gert Van den Bergh, University of Wollongong.

ResearchGate: What has been discovered? 

van den Bergh: Six fossil teeth and a piece of mandible of a hominin. The remains were excavated in a sandstone layer dated to about 700,000 years old, at an open air site called Mata Menge, on the Indonesian Island of Flores, located c. 75 km east of Liang Bua.

Hominin fossil. Credit: Kinez Riza
Hominin fossil.
Credit: Kinez Riza

RG: Can you offer us a glimpse into how these Meta Menge hominins lived? What sort of tools did they have access to?

Brumm: The most we can say at this stage is that the hominins lived in savannah-like tropical grasslands and made simple tools using chert and volcanic rocks collected from nearby stream beds. Presently, we know very little about their diet and how they survived in this environment. We have identified no tool-made cut-marks on any of the animal fossils found in association with the hominin remains, so we don't know if they were using the tools to obtain meat and fat from animal carcasses.

RG: How tall were the Meta Menge hominins?

van den Bergh: We don’t know exactly, because we have no bones of the skeleton excavated so far. But because of the fact that the mandible and teeth are smaller than those of Homo floresiensis from Liang Bua, it is likely that the Mata Menge hominin was also slightly smaller than H. floresiensis, so smaller than 1.06 m tall.

Reconstruction of Homo floresiensis by Atelier Elisabeth Daynes. Credit: Kinez Riza
Reconstruction of Homo floresiensis by Atelier Elisabeth Daynes. Credit: Kinez Riza

RG: Where are Meta Menge hominins from originally?

van den Bergh: Based on the morphology of the Mata Menge fossils we now think that they and the Liang Bua H. floresiensis were descendants of a population of Homo erectus that somehow got stranded on Flores around 1 million years ago. Fossils of Homo erectus have been found on the island of Java, in China and India. H. erectus was present on Java between 1.7 million years ago up to around 150,000 years.

It is possible however, that the ancestral population to reach Flores did not come from the west (from Java via other islands in between Java and Flores), but from the North (from Sulawesi). On 14 January 2016, we published in Nature that the oldest stone tools from Sulawesi are older than the first appearance of Homo sapiens in the region, indicating the archaic hominins must have been present on Sulawesi before moderns arrived in the region around 50,000 years ago.

RG: What was the island of Flores, Indonesia like 700,000 years ago?

Brumm: We can only say what the environment was like within our immediate study area, the So'a Basin of central Flores. In this place, and elsewhere on the island, there was certainly a lot of volcanic activity, as we find numerous ash beds and other deposits from volcanic eruptions. This was a dynamic and tectonically unstable island, so hominins (and other prehistoric animal life) would have had to contend with occasional catastrophic eruptions.

RG: Where does this discovery sit within the Homo timeline?

van den Bergh: Homo floresiensis was probably an evolutionary dead end that became extinct following the arrival of modern humans around 50,000 years ago. It was isolated on Flores for almost a million years.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewI3i5v0LzE[/embed]

Featured image: Landscape near Meta Mange. Credit: Dr Gerrit van den Bergh/ University of Wollongong, Australia