Welcome to my weekly series “Designing from Bones”, where we use archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we delve into the mystery of a clan of real world hobbits.
Come close friends and follow me through the misty portal to the Indonesian Island of Flores, a wondrous land once ruled by hobbits and fanciful creatures.
In 2003, a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists searching the migration patterns of early Homo Sapiens stumbled upon the complete skeleton of a three-and-a-half foot tall hominid (human-like creature) they could not immediately identify. Now known as the Little Lady of Flores (a.k.a. “Flo”), this 30-year-old female and the eight other hobbits found near her remain an enigma.
While there are many theories as to where these creatures originated and what made them the way they were, the strongest belief is that the Hobbits of Flores are descended from an early human species known as Homo Erectus that dominated the planet a million years ago. Stranded on the island, with limited available food, these human progenitors evolved into their own sub-species through a process known as insular (or “island”) dwarfism, shrinking in size to reduce energy needs.
It is believed that Homo Erectus arrived at the island approximately one million years ago while the Hobbits inhabited the island between 95,000 to 12,000 years ago. A massive volcanic eruption rocked the island 12,000 years ago, decimating the Hobbits societal cohesion and causing them to disperse.
Myths among the modern inhabitants of the island speak of a diminutive people known as the Ebu Gogo and suggest that the hobbits may have continued to exist on Flores until the late 19th century. Rumors also tell of a halfling race on Sumatra known as the Orang Pendek and some scientists theorize that hobbits may yet exist deep in the unexplored jungles of Indonesia.
The Floresian Hobbits differed from modern humans in that they had no chin and reached an average height of three-and-a-half feet tall. They also sported unusually long, flat feet with a short big toe making walking difficult and slow. These were not sprinters. This feature forced the hobbits to hunt as a team in order to take down their prey. It seems apparent that due to their physical limitations, the hobbits developed a strong sense of community with reliance on the group rather than the individual.
Living alongside the hobbits were giant rats, komodo dragons (and even larger lizards) but their favorite prey was the Stegodon. Hunting these now extinct pygmy elephants would have required the entire tribe to work together while rewarding the effort with ample meat for an extended period of time.
The hobbits territory centered around the massive Liang Bua Cave on the Island of Flores. The gaping maw of this stalactite-ridden limestone cave must have been an impressive sight to these small natives, like living in the mouth of a mighty giant. Liang Bua is the only location where the hobbits remains have been found, all within its 50 meter deep interior.
Homo Floresiensis (the hobbits official name) made sophisticated stone tools similar to those used by Homo Erectus, only designed to work with the halflings smaller size. The hobbits also used fire, their small brain size having little impact on their innovation and skills. It is possible that the ability to make tools and use fire was passed down from their Homo Erectus ancestors rather than by their own invention, but we will never know.
Using Hobbits in Story
The history of the Hobbits of Flores ignites the imagination in a host of ways. Let’s take a look at a few of the possibilities.
The hobbits lend themselves well to fantasy. What if these creatures inhabited an island, steeped in myth and rumored to be the location of a powerful magic, a hermit mage or a vast treasure? What if finding each of these things was dependent on how the hero treated the hobbits? Being that they are a social race, what interesting culture could be introduced to thrill the reader? Unknown rituals? Customs? Habits?
More interested in science fiction? What if our hero arrived on a new world and these were the first inhabitants he met? Do they sit on a valuable resource as the Na’vi in Avatar? Will the hero “go native” and join in their simple way of life or will he see them as vermin to be removed, or both?
What if a species similar to the Hobbits of Flores existed deep in the jungles of Indonesia waiting to be discovered by our heroine as she searches for oil or mineral deposits? How would a modern human respond to them or they to her? Would our hero fight to protect them, conceal their presence and that of the resources she sought or would she reveal them, reaping a harvest of sorrow as they are destroyed in the name of progress?
The history of the Hobbits makes a compelling story in its own right. Imagine, a clan of miniature humans hunting, taming and riding the pygmy elephants. Struggling against giant rats and lizards much larger than themselves or domesticating komodo dragons as we would a dog. While the actual hobbits were primitive by our standards we could raise them to any level of technology and advancement for use in any genre, time period or place.
And now my friends I must return you through the misty portal to your own place and time. May visions of halflings riding miniature elephants cause you to smile in your dreams.
How do you envision the hobbits? Primitive, futuristic or are Tolkein’s halflings the ones for you?
Join me next Wednesday for another Designing from Bones when we’ll go hunting for a long lost treasure of the ancient world.
If you’re looking for more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries.