Of Hobbits and Pygmy Elephants

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.

Hobbit History

Little Lady of Flores - Flo

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.

The Island of Flores

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.

Hobbit Culture/World

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.

Hobbit Home - Liang Bua Cave

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?

Hobbits hunting for dinner.

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.

Peaceful Journeys!

About Gene Lempp

Gene Lempp is a writer blending elements of alternate history, the paranormal, fantasy, science fiction and horror for dark and delicious fun. He unearths stories by digging into history, archeology, myth and fable in his Designing from Bones blog series. “Only the moment is eternal and in a moment, everything will change,” sums the heart of his philosophy. You can find Gene at his Blog, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, WANATribe, Google+, Pinterest and StumbleUpon.
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28 Responses to Of Hobbits and Pygmy Elephants

  1. Great insight. I have a particular interest in H. Florensis, I’ve been an enthusiast for evolutionary studies for years (ended up doing it at tertiary level) and am a Tolkien fan to boot. Coincidentally, my wife used to live in Solo, not far from where H. Erectus was discovered in the 1890s.

    However, can you imagine the appalling racism if there actually were more than one species of humans? It’s bad enough now – with every human demonstrably being genetically more identical than most species.

    Puts me in mind of my undergrad years, way back when. Multi-regionality was in vogue, but I always wondered why humans had to be made a special case, ie: one linear evolutionary chain, whereas every other species operated according to normal rules of diversification by habitat. My lecturers were doing back-flips to try and make the multiregional hypothesis seem credible. I always thought the motive had more to do with being seen to fit post-colonial dogma than science; humans *had* to be proven to have somehow evolved, independently and simultaneously, into the exact same species worldwide, otherwise different “races” might be seen to be different “species”.

    Of course science was asking the wrong questions. All modern humans were clearly identical, but the mechanisms of evolution made it unlikely they’d have sprung up identically all over the world. So something else was involved. And I’m glad to say it’s been found since, of course – in that there wasn’t just one wave “out of Africa”.

    But just because all modern humans are demonstrably identical (irrespective of race, creed or anything else) doesn’t preclude human ancestry being well, more of a broad bush than a tree. In fact the modern situation seems to be quite unusual in the wider scheme of things. Why? Did modern humans exterminate them all? Or were environmental issues at work? Or both? Curious questions, yet to be answered.

    A few years ago Penguin published my “science fiction” book on “alternative history” in which I envisaged a New Zealand H.Erectus derivative – catapulting from Maori tales of ‘fairy folk’, “Pakepakeha’. No such creature in reality, of course, but it’s fun to make believe…

    Matthew Wright

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Great to meet you Matthew.

      Humans have a unique fear of their own history and progenitor races. It has taken centuries and layers of scientific proof to admit that we did not all spring magically from a garden looking exactly like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Were another race to be discovered, I doubt that it would take long for H. Sapiens to destroy them or cage them in zoos as exhibits of dominance. Of course, there is the potential that the other race could turn out to be superior, and that is the fear that I believe drives the issue. H. Sapiens must feel supreme to be comfortable, even within its own species.

      Recent finds and studies have shown that H. Erectus spanned from Africa through Europe, Asia, India, and the South-East Asian Islands. It is possible that over time their presence will be found even more broadly. This progenitor, up until recently, was dismissed as just another small link in the human chain. However, it would appear that it is most likely the prototype for what became the various “races” of H. Sapiens. Common ancestor leads to common present.

      It is unfortunate that scientific endeavor and conclusions are often controlled by those funding the endeavor. This, to me, seems to be a waste of effort as only empirical evidence presented with clarity is of any true value in understanding.

      Your book sounds entertaining. Nice premise.

      Thank you for the interesting and detailed comment.

  2. kerrymeacham says:

    Great post Gene. I saw the special on NatGeo about this, and it was incredibly interesting. Great comment/discussion with Matthew too. Have a great day ROWbro. Off to do ROW80 post.

  3. K.B. Owen says:

    My 18-yr-old son breezed by while I was reading this and was fascinated. You’ve hit a home run!

  4. susielindau says:

    This is a great post! I love how you wove your subject into the possibilities for creative writing.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Kathy: Love home runs! Glad you both enjoyed it 🙂

      Susie: Everything has its story. Being able to share history and myth while finding the hidden stories is a joy for me. Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the comment 🙂

  5. Lynn Kelley says:

    Wow, this is one of my favorite Designing from Bones posts yet. Absolutely fascinating stuff. Just blows my mind that this is all real. And Matthew’s comments are intriguing, too. Well done, Gene. Keep ’em coming!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      I’ve been tracking the story of the Floresian Hobbits since about 2005. It fascinated me from the very beginning because they represent a rare culture that is lost in most of the modern world (although there are still “uncontacted tribes” out there).

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Lynn 🙂

  6. I’m a Tolkein hobbit person myself. I honestly thought they were entirely fantasy & fiction; I had no idea there was a mythology behind the hobbits. As always, great post, Gene!

    • Gene Lempp says:

      There was most likely some in Tolkein’s era but I can’t say whether that was his influence so much as the need to see that the “little guy” in life could make an impact against the trials of life. The Floresian Hobbits were not discovered until long after Tolkein’s death.

      Thanks for the great comment, Tiffany 🙂

  7. Catie Rhodes says:

    I’m trying to figure out how the chinless thing works. I suspect a trip to google is in my future.

    Lost civilizations (let alone lost races) fascinate me. I think that’s one element that keeps me returning to Urban Fantasy. We’ve talked enough about my family for you to understand why I am fascinated with “lost ways” or “old ways.”

    Many moons ago, I read a book called Bethany’s Sin by Robert R. McCammon. It dealt with similar (but not exact) themes of a forgotten race absconding on modern day society.

    Thanks for the read.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      I fully understand your reasons and can see why you have them, Catie. Ancient societies, the roots of humanity, have always fascinated me. Not for family reasons but because I love being able to grasp why things are the way they are. I truly believe that the answers to modern issues are contained deep in our past.

      Chinless, is lack of a bone to shape the chin, rather than the complete lack of the physical location.

      Thanks for the great comment 😉

  8. Absolutely riveting again, Gene. I did archaeology in the California Channel Islands in 1992. We didn’t find much, but two years later, another team unearthed an intact pygmy mammoth skeleton! What both saddens and amazes me is that these “lost” cultures might have still existed as recently as 100 years ago…

    • Gene Lempp says:

      I’ll have to take a look at the California Channel Islands, that is an incredible find. On Flores, there are theories that members of a particular village on the island are the descendants of the Hobbits, but until they can extract DNA from one of the hobbit bones there is no way to confirm this.

      Thanks for the great comment, Elle 🙂

  9. Alica says:

    So interesting- my brain is having fun playing with the idea- of hobbits and tiny elephants.

  10. This might be my favorite Designing from Bones! I love when discoveries show that there may have been some seed of truth in a lot of “fairy tales.” I think a lot our inspiration for fairy tale beings probably came from bits of truth passed along with stories and distorted over time.

    • Gene Lempp says:

      Alica: Awesome! Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      Sonia: Most of the “myths” are based on solid facts being interpreted by those unsure of the realities. For instance, the Spartans believed that giants had once roamed Greece. The reason: They found Mammoth bones and believed they belonged to giant humans not elephants with which they had no contact. By thinking like a “primitive” we can find “new myths” everywhere or understand existing ones.

      Thanks for the great comment 🙂

  11. jamilajamison says:

    Another wonderful Designing from Bones post, Gene! I have to say that I love the idea of futuristic hobbits, with advanced technology and gadgets and whatnot. Definitely makes for some fascinating pondering. 😀

  12. I admit to having a deep fascination with Hobbits. I’m really looking forward to The Hobbit’s release. 🙂

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  14. I have to say – it shows that you’ve put so much research into your post. Hats off to the time and effort given to make an interesting and informative post – all while inspiring that creative spark in the mind. ~ Nadja

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  17. catwoods says:

    I have to say I like the Flo version of Hobbits much better than Tolkein’s cartoon version. That scared me silly.

    And ancient is the only way to go with hobbits, in my opinion.

  18. Diane Tibert says:

    I discovered Homo floresiensis only last week. It’s incredible to think they existed and could still exist in an unexplored part of Flores. As a fantasy writer, I’m always on the look out for evidence that proves fairy-like and mythical creatures were once real in some capacity. These hauflins (or Hobbits) on Flores are in the perfect setting for a fantasy novel.

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