Fossil bones of at least three Lilliputian humans dating back 700,000 years have been found on the island of Flores, 70km from the spot where the first Homo floresiensis remains were uncovered in 2003.
Not only were they much older than their descendants, thought to have become extinct 50,000 years ago, but evidence suggests they were even tinier.
One fossil fragment came from an adult jawbone 20% smaller than its smallest more recent hobbit counterpart. The finds include six teeth, among them two milk teeth belonging to infants.
Scientists believe the discovery lends weight to the theory that ‘hobbits’ — nicknamed after the short, humanoid creatures in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga — evolved from an early ancestor of modern humans, Homo erectus.
Dr Yousuke Kaifu, one of the researchers from the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan, said: “All the fossils are indisputably hominin and they appear to be remarkably similar to those of Homo floresiensis.
"The morphology (shape) of the fossil teeth also suggests that this human lineage represents a dwarfed descendant of early Homo erectus that somehow got marooned on the island of Flores.
“What is truly unexpected is that the size of the finds indicates that Homo floresiensis had already obtained its small size by at least 700,000 years ago.”
The original hobbits, found in a cave known as Liang Bua, were at first thought to have lived on Flores until as recently as 12,000 years ago.
But scientists have revised this estimate and decided the creatures had probably been extinct for around 50,000 years.
The much older ‘hobbits’ described in the journal Nature were excavated from an ancient river bed at Mata Menge, a site 70km from Liang Bua.
When the first hobbits were found, some experts claimed they could be modern humans affected by microcephaly.
But Dr Gert van den Bergh, from the University of Wollongong in Australia, whose team uncovered the new fossils, said: “This find has important implications for our understanding of early human dispersal and evolution in the region and quashes once and for all any doubters that believe Homo floresiensis was merely a sick modern human (Homo sapiens).”