In Search Of The Hobbit

Discovery Of Bones Of What Some Say Is New Species Of Human

This segment originally aired on May 1, 2005.

New species of plants and animals are discovered every day. But unless you're a specialist, you'll never hear about it and never care.

But a new species of a human? That's rare. And we do care, particularly because we Homo sapiens have been the only guys on the block for such a long time. Or so we thought.

In October 2004, a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists announced in Nature magazine they had dug up the bones of a brand new, previously unknown humanoid species which they nicknamed "The Hobbit," because it was rather small.

Here's the revolutionary part: Homo sapiens got here 200,000 years ago. And by 30,000 years ago, all the other guys -- the Neanderthal man, with his bad posture, and Homo erectus, who was big but not very bright – had disappeared. There was just us.

But the Hobbit lived 18,000 years ago, and perhaps far more recently, which means that for quite some time on this planet, and not all that long ago, we were not alone.

Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

Human history is being rewritten on the Indonesian island of Flores. It is so remote that when you get there, it's not difficult to suspend your disbelief. Anything could have happened there. There are volcanoes that are still active, dragons, the bluest skies, the most relentless rain you have ever seen, and mosaics of rice paddies planted by tribal peoples who move to a beat you'll never hear on MTV.

There are 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia. 60 Minutes came to Flores with Douglas Hobbs, one of the Australian archaeologists responsible for the discovery. He knows the island well. Over the last 10 years, he's been excavating sites like a limestone cave carved into a mountainside.

The cave is vast enough to be a cathedral, and has the feel of one as well: dark, cool and hallowed. Stalactites that form natural altars are not carved by human hands. It is, in fact, an ancient burial ground, and villagers still come here to conduct rituals worshipping their ancestors, which makes it a perfect place to search for them.

The team dug for three seasons. Then Hobbs had a hunch and suggested they dig in one corner of the cave. They were down 18 feet when they came upon a skeleton the likes of which none of them had ever seen before.

It was small, so at first, they thought they'd found the skeleton of a child. But once they had a really good look, they realized it wasn't a child at all, but a woman -- about 30 years old, and three feet tall.

"We decided we'd discovered a new species," says Hobbs. "It was totally unexpected, totally unexpected."

It was totally unexpected because what they were looking for were remains of aboriginals on their millennia-long journey to Australia. "So the hobbit was a real surprise when we found it," says Hobbs. "The actual skeleton was lying here."

There were parts of seven people, as we might as well call them. And the scientists decided to call them Hobbits not only because of their diminutive height, but because of the skull, which had room for a brain the size of a grapefruit, smaller than a chimpanzee brain.

Alongside these bones, the remains of giant rats and Komodo dragons were found, as well as those of an animal now-extinct called the Stegadon - an elephant the size of a cow.

"So our skeleton is co-habitating with these small elephants?" asks Simon.

"Well, they're obviously hunting them, that is what we have concluded," says Hobbs. "We found quite a lot of the bones of them associated with stone tools which they butchered them with. Plus, we found hearths where they actually would have cooked the food as well."

They knew about fire? "Obviously, this is what we're concluding, that they actually must have known about collective hunting," says Hobbs. "So this suggests social organization."

Graphic artists, working with the team, have pictured the hobbit. It's clearly not a dwarf, or a pygmy, but a 3-foot tall species of humans. Hobbs, who worked as a consultant with 60 Minutes on the story, believes they may have had a rudimentary form of language.

"You have established that there was some pretty complicated behavior going on?" asks Simon.

"Definitely yes," says Hobbs.

He says it's astounding because the Hobbit's brain was a third the size of one of ours. And scientists had always used brain size as the most important characteristic separating humans from other animals -- that and the ability to use tools and build fires.

The Hobbits may no longer be with us, but the animals they hunted are still here. Komodo dragons are alive and well and hanging out not far from where the young lady skeleton was found. In fact, dragon bones from the same period have been discovered in the Hobbit's immediate proximity.

"How do you think that the Hobbits actually went about getting the dragons?" Simon asks Professor Mike Morwood, lead scientist on the Australian team.

"You walk up to them in the morning when they're still cold before they've warmed up, and you bang them on the head, OK? You wouldn't want to try it when the sun's up and they're warmed up," says Morwood.

And Morwood will tell you that when the Komodo dragon arrived on this island, he wasn't nearly as large and lethal as he is now. He was just a small reptile. That happens on islands over the millennia.

Small animals get bigger so they can survive better. And big animals get smaller so they can live on less food. Eventually, they evolve into new species. Hence the miniature elephant, the Stegadon, and now the Hobbit.