Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. The Liang Bua Team prepares for new archaeological excavations. (Smithsonian Digitization Program Office / Liang Bua Team)
Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. The Liang Bua Team prepares for new archaeological excavations. (Smithsonian Digitization Program Office / Liang Bua Team)

It turns out a tiny hominin nicknamed the “Hobbit” may have disappeared from the Indonesian island of Flores much earlier than scientists originally thought. When it was first discovered in 2003 in the Liang Bua cave, an international team concluded that H. floresiensis was 18,000 years old and bone fragments were deposited there from 12,000 and 95,000 years ago. But after digging up new stratigraphic and chronological evidence from other parts of the massive, stalactites, filled cave, scientists concluded in a Nature study published Wednesday that new dates for the tiny creature – that stood only 3.6 feet and had a chimp-sized brain – range from 190,000 to 50,000 years ago.

The remains of H. floresiensis _ including 20-foot skeleton and bone fragments of as many as 10 individuals – have been dated from between about 100,000 and 60,000 years old. Stone artifacts found in the cave and believed to have been used by the hobbit range from 190,000 years to 50,000 years.

The new dates are significant because it reduces the possibility – although it doesn’t eliminate it – that H. floresiensis came in contact with modern humans who were most likely traveling from Asia to Australia. Modern humans are believed to have reached Australia 50,000 years ago and the earlier dates – also from stone tools in the cave – raised the prospect that humans clashed with H. floresiensis and competed for resources. “We dated charcoal, sediments, flowstones, volcanic ash and even the H. floresiensis bones themselves using the most up-to-date scientific methods available. In the last decade, we’ve vastly improved our understanding of when the deposits accumulated in Liang Bua, and what this means for the age of ‘hobbit’ bones and stone tools,” Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts, an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Wollongong who oversaw the various dating analyses used in the study, said in a statement.