It turns out that J.R.R. Tolkien's famous creation of the Hobbit appears to be grounded in reality. In 2003, a nearly complete skeleton was found on the Indonesian island of Flores of a species known as homo floresiensis. Discovered in Liang Bua Cave on the island, a total of nine different examples of the species have been identified. Each one was very similar to humans, however, very diminutive. The remains date to approximately 18,000 years ago and were found with a number of small stone tools.
The anthropologists led by Peter Brown and Michael Morwood believe that the species, nicknamed "Flores Man," are part of the hominini species that includes humans and two types of chimpanzees. They also believe that the species lived with regular humans.
Other anthropologists, like Teuku Jacob, have suggested that Flores Man was actually just small humans who were born with a malfunctioning thyroid gland. However, research into the brain revealed that it indeed is a distinct species.
The specimens of homo floresiensis was found not fossilized. As the bones were discovered they needed to be left to dry before they could be removed from the earth. Australian researcher Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong stated that the bones were reminiscent of "wet blotting paper." The goal for he researchers was to identify preserved samples of the mitochondrial DNA. However, they quickly found that no useful DNA specimens existed due to the degradation caused by the warm tropical environment. In addition, a number of surrounding elements contaminated the samples as well.
In addition to the small body and cranial capacity, other less obvious features define Flores Man as unique. The form of the teeth is different than homo sapiens, as are the forearms which feature low twists in the bones. Scientists have also been able to identify a lack of a chin as well. The skull has also been identified as having a number of small features that are very distinct from humans.
One theory as to how this species developed is the concept of "island dwarfing." A number of the original investigators believe that the species may have developed from homo erectus. Due to the limited food environment on the island of Flores, the species shrunk. A number of other animals have been found to have shrunk on the island as well, most notably a dwarf Stegodon.
Despite the fact that homo floresiensis is not exactly a Hobbit in the pure Tolkien sense, the fact that the species existed as recently as 12,000 years ago has changed the perspective of the anthropologal community. That date places Flores Man as having survived longer than the Neanderthals.