Not the Tolkien story, but the discovery of Homo floresiensis occurred ten years ago. Nature has published a fascinating set of personal statements by the people involved, and you get a real sense of the drama of it all.
Brown: I smuggled some mustard seeds through customs for the purpose of measuring the volume of the brain. So I cleaned it all as carefully as I could. I turned it upside down, and I poured the seeds in it. I’d taken enough seeds to measure the size of a modern human brain, say 1.5 litres of seeds, but it only took about 400 millilitres. I was flabbergasted. The last time things with a brain that size walked was around about 2.5 million to 3 million years ago. It was not making any sense at all. I recorded it a second time, a third time. Mike and Thomas are looking at me and wondering why I’m going a bit pale. I was trying to push more seeds into the skull with my finger to try and increase the volume, because it was insane really.
Roberts: The carbon dates came in and they were around 18,000 years. So at that point it was, “Oh, this is absolutely bizarre.” This was a very primitive-looking human who was living this side of the last glacial maximum, this side of the last Ice Age.
Brown: If Mike had said he’d found evidence of an alien spaceship on Flores, I would have been less surprised.
But the end result is that the discovery reinforces a better picture of evolution: not linear, but branchy.
Roberts: We had such a nice simple story, where we had modern humans and Neanderthals, and we bumped them off, that was the end of Neanderthals. We ventured across southeast Asia and it was basically empty because Homo erectus had died out there already, and we sort of just wandered into Australia and there we go. It was a clean and almost crisp little story. It made nice sense. Everyone was happy with that. And then suddenly the hobbit pops its head up.
Brown: Now I’m more open to the idea that very small-bodied and small-brained bipeds moved out of Africa at a much earlier date, maybe 3 million years ago, or earlier. I’m more open to the idea that there were lots of failures in the evolution of bipeds. Some were successful, some weren’t. It’s a very branchy tree, and it just so happens we’ve survived.