On September 2nd, 2003, a team of researchers led by Mike Morwood unearthed an incredible skull on the Indonesian island of Flores. It was very small, like that of a child. But its permanent teeth and other features revealed that it belonged to an adult—a 30-year-old female who stood just 3.5 feet tall, weighed just 55 pounds, and had a chimp-sized brain. The team called her LB1 after Liang Bua cave where she was found, and they agreed that she belonged to a new species: Homo floresiensis.
The rest of the world would know her and her kin by the nickname Morwood gave them: the hobbits.
The team have since recovered the partial skeletons of nine hobbits, and their latest estimates suggest that these diminutive hominins lived on Flores between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago. Why were they so small (more on that later)? And where had they come from? Right from the off, Morwood believed that there must be more hominins on Flores—older fossils that would attest to the hobbit’s origins. They just had to find them.
The So’a Basin, about 46 miles east of Liang Bua, seemed a likely site. Archaeologists had been digging there since the 1950s and had uncovered many stone tools—but never any hominin fossils. In the 1990s, Morwood’s team set to work at the basin, at a site called Mata Menge. They started small, but by 2010, the team of a few dozen scientists and excavators had ballooned into a hundred-strong workforce. “We were slowly chiseling through concrete-like rock, and the fossil basins cover a very large area,” says Adam Brumm, who had joined the team as a graduate student in 2004. “It was like looking for a needle in a thousand haystacks.”