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In Search Of The Hobbit

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.

Little animals. Little people. Ms. Hobbit lived here, eating her dragons and elephants 18,000 years ago. But people living on the island today will tell you that her descendants were still here very recently.

In the hamlets under the volcano, villagers talk in a matter-of-fact way about very little people their grandparents told them about. They wore no clothes, had long arms, and lived in caves high up on the volcano. The village chief told 60 Minutes that the volcano is called Abu Lobo, and the little people were called Abu Gogo, which, literally translated, means "grandma who eats everything."

In other words, the Abu Lobo is very big and the Abu Gogo is very small.

A few villagers invited 60 Minutes to accompany them on a walk up the volcano to see the ruins of a village where their grandparents lived. It's where the Abu Gogo, they say, dropped by from time to time.

When exactly were the Abu Gogo last seen? They didn't know precisely. Exactly where did they live? In caves a long way away. In these parts, going back in time always involves a lot of hard walking. This is the forest primeval. The villagers brought a chicken along, not for lunch, but for a ceremony - a sacrifice - when we reached our destination.

The ancient village is a shrine now and the ceremony involved splashing a mixture of coconut milk and chicken blood around a headstone, lighting candles and invoking the spirits of their ancestors. Then, they talked to 60 Minutes about the Abu Gogo.

What do the Abu Gogo look like?

"They were very hairy and short, only about 3-feet high. The women have very long breasts, which they used to throw over their shoulders. They also had very wide mouths," says one team member. "If we think about them, they are not nice people at all. Abu Gogo means 'very greedy.' They used to eat everything."

Until now, we have never seen them.

Legend? Or memory? Hard to say. But archaeologists are by no means dismissing the stories. Right now, though, they're dealing with other questions concerning the 18,000-year-old lady from Flores. Digging her up was not the end of her journey. It was just the beginning.

The bones were taken from Flores to Indonesia's Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta. Very few people knew about their existence until the Australian scientists published their article in Nature magazine almost a year later. But then the story took a sudden twist.

A prominent Indonesian professor came to the center, packed up the skeleton in a brown leather case and took it away. The 18,000-year-old remains of the woman from Flores became literally bones of contention.

The bones were taken by Dr. Teuku Jacob, the dean of Indonesian paleoanthropologists. He was not a member of the team. But after one look at the lady's teeth, he was convinced the conclusions drawn by the Australians were not only premature. They were wrong.

"You are convinced that this is not a new species?" asks Simon.

"Yes," says Jacob. "And some other scientists believe that the bones are those of a very small human, a pygmy with a brain-shrinking disease."

Jacob adds: "When I saw the skull for the first time, I turn it upside down and I saw the teeth is very modern and sapiens."

He says the teeth told him this was a Homo sapien. But can he substantiate that?

"He made his claims. And when you think about it, OK, do you really think a population of meter-high humans with brains the size of a chimpanzee's, with no chins and no foreheads and wide, wide hips, unusual, and arms down to their knees, OK, running around Flores from 95,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago are modern humans?" asks Morwood. "I don't know where these people are coming from, but it's not my interpretation of the actual evidence."

The scientific community is leaning towards the conclusions reached by the Australians: that the Hobbit is a new, previously undiscovered species. Findings based on CAT scans of the interior of the skull commissioned by the National Geographic Society show that the Hobbit's brain was wired in a very intricate way, meaning that despite its small size, it was packed with intelligence.

"Now we, meaning the uneducated, always assumed, I think, that once we, Homo sapiens, come on the scene, there were no other humanoid creatures around," says Simon. "And all of a sudden, it's gotten a lot more complicated."

"A lot more complex. There's obviously many more branches to the human tree than we suspected," says Hobbs. "It's definitely gonna change our world view of ourselves."

"When you say 'it's' going to change our world view of ourselves, you mean these precise findings?" asks Simon.

"I mean these findings and other findings which will certainly, certainly come," says Hobbs.

Other findings?

In the villages of Flores, the Hobbit, or the Abu Gogo, as they call him, comes out of the bushes during rituals, scaring the children. But could there be any real Hobbits alive today? Maybe not on the island of Flores.

But remember, there are 17,000 islands in Indonesia, and some very serious scientists don't exclude the possibility. They believe it may be time to start looking.

The Australian scientists have continued looking and have found the remains of two more little people at the same site on Flores. But last month a new study criticised the Australians for poor science and media hype, concluding that the Hobbit was in fact a human with a brain shrinking disease.

Read more about this on the National Geographic Channel: Explorer Web site.

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