The 2003 discovery of a fossil of a small, human-like creature, Homo floresiensis (nicknamed ‘Hobbit’), in Indonesia by the late Professor Mike Morwood and Professor Raden Soejono shook up palaeoanthropologists worldwide. But there was more to find.
In 2010 Mike and his team returned to the island of Flores. With researchers from the Geology Museum Bandung, Geological Survey Institute of Indonesia and Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional, and with the help of 120 trained field workers from the Ngada and Nage Keo districts, they initiated one of the largest fossil digs in Southeast Asia. They found pygmy elephants, Komodo dragons, giant rats, and stone tools.
Mike passed the Australian leadership of the project to Dr Gert van den Bergh, who, together with Iwan Kurniawan, had been undertaking excavations in Mata Menge (50km east of the Hobbit site) for over 20 years. In 2014, local Flores field worker Andreas Boko excavated a small human tooth which was identified by Indonesian PhD student, Mika Puspaningrum.
In the ensuing weeks more teeth were found, together with skull and jaw fragments. These human fossils are from at least one an adult and two children who lived more than 700,000 years ago. Surprisingly, they are smaller than Homo floresiensis of 2003, and could be the ancestors of the Hobbit.
The research, published in Nature in 2016, suggests Homo floresiensis are descended from Homo erectus who were castaway on the island, and shrank due to a phenomenon known as Island Dwarfing, where large-bodied animals gradually become smaller over time.
“The knowledge and field skills of our Indonesian colleagues—geologists, archaeologists and palaeontologists—have underpinned the success of our research, and will continue to do so into the future,” says Dr Mark Moore of the University of New England, who assisted in analysing the stone tools.
The search for fossils continues.
Credit for banner image: Mark Moore.