Reconstructed Homo floresiensis skull in Liang Bua cave, Indonesia

A reconstructed skull of the ancient hominin Homo floresiensis in the cave where the first fossils of the species were discovered. Credit: Javier Trueba/MSF/SPL

Genomics

A single island spawned two populations of miniature humans

The ancient ‘hobbits’ and short-statured modern humans arose independently on Flores Island.

Diminutive humans evolved on the Indonesian island of Flores not once, but twice, according to DNA analysis.

Until as recently as 60,000 years ago, Flores was home to Homo floresiensis, archaic humans often referred to as ‘hobbits’ because they stood about one metre tall. To illuminate the ties between Flores’ ancient and modern inhabitants, Richard Green at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Joshua Akey at Princeton University in New Jersey and their colleagues sequenced the DNA from 32 short-statured people living on the island today.

The researchers compared this DNA with that of other modern humans and of ancient human relatives, and found that contemporary islanders carry small amounts of DNA from two extinct hominins, Denisovans and Neanderthals. But the islanders’ genomes show no evidence of genetic sequences from H. floresiensis.

The short-statured people now living on Flores carry a number of gene variants that could account for their height. The authors suggest that island living gradually shaped the genetics of these residents, making them shorter, just as it did for H. floresiensis in the past.