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Hobbit-Like Human Remains Returned to Their Finders

George Stuteville
National Geographic Magazine
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2005
 
For at least 13,000 years the bones of a miniature, female, human
creature lay in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores along with the
simple tools she may have used. She was undisturbed by natural forces.

It's been only months since she was introduced to the world as a new species of hominid, setting off scientific acclaim and acrimonious controversy. (Hominids include humans and extinct ancestral and related species.)

And now, some of the fragile skeletal remains that were in the custody of scientists not connected to the expedition have been returned to the finders. On their return, the remains were severely damaged, with slice marks from a sharp object, cracks in the pelvis, and two teeth that appeared to have been glued into place.

"Some of the most important items are irretrievably damaged," said Mike Morwood, a co-leader of the Australian and Indonesian archaeological team that found the remains.

Officially named Homo floresiensis, the specimen was no taller than a three-year-old modern human, which led rsearchers to call her species hobbits, after the tiny creatures from the Lord of the Rings novels.

Though partial remains of seven other "hobbits" have since been found, the first skeleton, including the skull, was of a female who died when she was around 30 years old. Standing at just about a meter (3.3 feet) tall, she would have weighed about 25 kilograms (55 pounds).

Paleoanthropologists used the dimensions and contours of the skull to reconstruct her face. Their reconstruction is similar to that on the cover of the April issue of National Geographic. An entire 3-D model can be found seen at National Geographic magazine online.

Almost immediately after the October 2004 announcement, some paleoanthropologists questioned whether the find represents a new species.

Indonesia's preeminent authority of paleoanthropology, Teuku Jacob, professor emeritus at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, theorized that the remains were likely to be those of a modern human dwarf with a birth defect called microcephaly, in which a person has an abnormally small brain. Others contended that the creatures, if indeed it was a hominid, was related to pygmies.

The original finders and researchers, in announcing their discovery in the October 28, 2004, issue of the science journal Nature, contended that what they had found in the hobbit was a wholly unanticipated, extinct member of the human family.

The conflicting views reflect the widely divergent theories of human evolution among paleoanthropologists and archaeologists.

Multiregionalists such as the 75-year-old Jacob say that evolution progressed in various regions of the world along a single line to produce modern Homo sapiens.

The other theory, a more prevalent one since the debut of genetic testing, is that modern humans evolved in Africa and migrated into Europe and Asia.

Just after the announcement, however, Radien Soejono, the senior archaeologist at the Jakarta-based Indonesian Centre for Archeology, signed agreements to hand the specimens over to Jacob's lab, some 275 miles (440 kilometers) away.

Because of the growing controversy, the team's co-leader, Mike Morwood of the University of New England, Australia, was apprehensive. He told Nature magazine, "We thought we would never see them again." He added that his colleague, Peter Brown, the lead author on the paper announcing the discovery, took careful measurements and photos of the specimens before they were transported.

The situation heated up earlier this year as Jacob kept possession of the remains for about two months longer than he had agreed, and after it was discovered that some of the bone material was removed for further genetic analysis by a German lab.

On February 23 Jacob's lab returned all but three leg bones and a portion of the cut jaw.

In the meantime, the hobbit continued to dominate archaeology news. Paleoneurologist Dean Falk announced research findings in early March at a press conference hosted by National Geographic.

Her team created an endocast—a virtual, 3-D view of the interior of the skull showing detailed features, including the size, shape, and vascular structure of the brain. Falk, a professor at Florida State University, said that the research concluded that the hobbit, despite her grapefruit-size brain, could have been capable of higher forms of intelligence and reasoning.

Now the hobbit is again at the epicenter of news, this time over the damages that were documented after their return from Jacob.

The Indonesian Center for Archeology, which now has the remains, believe that most damage resulted from improper techniques in making molds, said the center's director, Tony Djubiantono.

The molding procedures stripped anatomical detail from the base of the cranium and broke a portion of the skull. Two teeth in the jaw were removed and glued back in. Those damages could deprive researchers of critical information.

Researchers also reported that a mandible showed long, deep cut marks along the lower edge on both sides where material to make the molds was trimmed.

Jacob has denied that his lab caused the damage while the specimens were in his possession. Attempts to contact him by phone, fax, or e-mail have been unsuccessful.

Djubiantono, though distressed by the condition of the bones, is reluctant to point the finger of blame directly at Jacob, and he declined to sign a draft letter from Morwood and others. However, in a phone interview, he said he had had a serious discussion with Jacob.

Falk said the incidents surrounding the hobbit are regrettable.

"It sounds awful. If these were damaged—and I have no reason to think otherwise, because Morwood is a credible source—then the loss could be substantial," Falk said, adding that casting, a common procedure, can be extremely destructive to the specimen.

While some have called for a formal investigation, it doesn't appear that such an action will occur. Falk, like several other researchers, said that she hoped the paleoarchaeological community will take a stand and express their collective concern.

Djubiantono said the remains in repository at the center will never again be shared off-site. "We have hope that the information that may have been lost to the damage can be filled in with what we continue to learn. We have found other skeletons at the general area of the excavations. We believe it will tell us much more."

Among the things they hope to discover are clues that would reveal how the small creatures lived their lives and interacted with others of their species.

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