On the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, while searching for proof of modern humans’ migration from Asia to Australia, scientists discovered a small, relatively intact skeleton of an extinct human species that would later be known as “Homo floresiensis.” Anthropologist Gregory Forth discusses Homo floresiensis and proposes the astonishing possibility that descendants of those “hobbits” may still exist on the Indonesian island of Flores. If this is the case, then Homo sapiens are not alone after all.
Initially, it was believed that the species lived until relatively recent time, around 12,000 years ago, but subsequent studies pushed that dating back to almost 50,000 years. Whereas “anatomically modern humans” came to Flores approximately 11,000 years ago, it is estimated that the floresiensis lineage originated on the island approximately 100,000 years ago. However, there is no proof that floresiensis had huge, hairy hobbit-like feet.
Mr. Forth says that it is possible that the Hobbit is still alive today, or at the very least within the living memory of most people. In his recently published book “Between Ape and Human: An Anthropologist on the Trail of a Hidden Hominoid,” Mr. Forth argues that indigenous knowledge and accounts of “ape-man” residing in the Flores jungles have been disregarded by paleontologists and other experts.
He writes: “My aim in writing the book was to find the best explanation—that is, the most rational and empirically best supported—of Lio accounts of the creatures. These include reports of sightings by more than 30 eyewitnesses, all of whom I spoke with directly. And I conclude that the best way to explain what they told me is that a non-sapiens hominin has survived on Flores to the present or very recent times.” (Source)
Flores was once inhabited by the elephant-like pygmy stegodons, making it an interesting location. Today, Komodo dragons and scary, cat-sized gigantic rodents occupy the island. The island is also inhabited by the indigenous Lio people, who have long held a belief in an ape-like creature they call “lai ho’a,” which closely resembles floresiensis. Mr. Forth speculates that there may be a connection between floresiensis and the lai ho’a.
Mr. Forth is a well-known academic who is a retired professor of anthropology from the University of Alberta and holds a Ph.D. from Oxford. After doing his doctoral research on the nearby island of Sumba for two years, he did his first fieldwork on Flores in 1984. Since then, he has been back to the island 19 times, for a total of about four years. He is fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, which is the national language of Indonesia.
In the summer of 2003, he started working in the field with the Lio people of eastern Flores. The Lio are mostly farmers and sometimes hunters, and they also raise domestic animals. This had been before Homo floresiensis was found in the western part of Flores and more than a year before the discovery was made public in October 2004.
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He says that Lio folk zoology and cosmology also have stories about how natural beings, especially humans, change into other kinds of animals. He heard about the ape-man almost as soon as he got there, and dozens of other people later confirmed this. He was amazed by how factual, natural, and consistent the reports were. He was also shocked by how much they sounded like descriptions of Homo floresiensis.
According to him, “anyone can dismiss as ‘mythical’ anything whose existence has yet to be proven. But actually demonstrating that the ape-men are imaginary is no easy task. One might attempt to show that the thing’s existence contradicts the laws of physics or principles of biological evolution as these are currently known. To be sure, some Lio make what sound like fantastic claims about ape-men—for example, that they are able to ‘disappear’ or even ‘fly.’ Yet many other Lio do not, adhering to a thoroughly naturalistic depiction. And if it is supposed that such naturalistically represented things do not exist, for anthropologists there is still the question of why people think they do—indeed, why some give seemingly credible accounts of ape-man sightings.”
According to genetic evidence, interbreeding occurred during prehistoric interactions between Homo sapiens and at least one other example of the genus Homo, the Neanderthals. As a result, Neanderthals are still alive and well within us today. The floresiensis, on the other hand, is not.
From his research, Mr. Forth discovered that the Lio distinguish humans from nonhuman animals in much the same way as modern Westerners, that is, not only on the basis of morphology but also by attributing complex cultural, linguistic, and technological expressions exclusively to humans. Similarly to other folk zoologists, the Lio believe that humans are the genesis of all other species. By contrast, both the biblical account of creation and evolutionary theory place humans (or hominins) at the end of the line. But in each case, the position distinguishes Homo sapiens as special, setting us apart from animals.
Mr. Forth states that the Lio people consider ape-men as another species of animal. In reality, the Lio people believe that they are descended from humans, and they make this claim for several other species as well. However, this categorization has nothing to do with fossil records or ancient human remains. There may be an undiscovered species or population of modern apes that shares some characteristics with the ape-men. However, the majority of Lio’s statements and the available information on the biogeography of eastern Indonesia argue against this theory.
“Our initial instinct, I suspect, is to regard the extant ape-men of Flores as completely imaginary. But, taking seriously what Lio people say, I’ve found no good reason to think so. What they say about the creatures, supplemented by other sorts of evidence, is fully consistent with a surviving hominin species, or one that only went extinct within the last 100 years,” writes Mr. Forth.