15 February 2008

Bones of contention

Cosmos Magazine
The controversy over the status of the 'hobbit' continues. Cosmos looks on as two teams of spirited scientists try to settle things once and for all.
Bones of contention

Credit: AFP

“It’s just another day for us,” Thomas Sutikna tells me, boarding a beat-up minibus bound for Middle Earth. He and his team from the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology spend their days hunting ‘hobbits’ – a race of extinct, metre-high humans whose remains they discovered in Liang Bua Cave on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. The only thing different about this day is that Sutikna and crew will have 40-odd experts peering over their shoulders and into their digs, debating if and how their work should rewrite what it means to be human.

Since the announcement of the new hominid species Homo floresiensis on the front cover of U.K. journal Nature in October 2004, scientists have argued fiercely about the implications of a few handfuls of tiny bones. A majority of researchers welcome the Flores fossils as a new species of human. They embrace the view that we were not alone, at least not until recently, and that some of the hallmarks of humanity – big brains atop long legs – stand to be revised. A vocal minority, meanwhile, rejects the new species. They say the Flores fossil is one of us, a modern Homo sapiens, albeit diseased and deformed.

The debate became personal at the end of 2004, when emeritus professor Teuku Jacob from Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University ‘borrowed’ the Liang Bua bones from Jakarta’s Centre for Archaeology and debunked Homo floresiensis in the media.

Australian anthropologist Mike Morwood, of the University of Wollongong in New South Wales and a partner on the Liang Bua find, cried foul on an institutional agreement regarding management of the bones. The brouhaha descended to “a level of shouting and name-calling that you do not often hear in Indonesia,” Morwood would later report. Most distressing, however, was that the bones were returned to the centre scarred, broken and clumsily repaired. A member of Jacob’s lab confessed that the damage was the result of botched efforts to cast the crumbly remains.

Political fallout led to closure of the Liang Bua dig site for two years. But 2007 has seen a flurry of renewed activity in and around the cave. Sutikna and Morwood returned for their fifth season of excavations while Jacob sent a team to size up local pygmies, claiming that they’re the living descendants of hobbits. Then, in July 2007, Jacob held an international symposium on palaeoanthropology that focussed on Flores and climaxed with a field trip to the cave.

Scientific disciplines are rarely as contentious as palaeoanthropology – a field plagued by the unusual circumstance of having fewer fossils to work with than people who study them. Naturally, I wondered what would happen when global rivals in the hobbit conflict converged on Liang Bua. Would researchers compromise? Or convert? And most importantly, would they behave? I tagged along to the symposium to find out and to get the big picture on the little people of Flores.

THOMAS SUTIKNA SITS in a hotel room in Ruteng, his base camp and make-shift bone lab for the Liang Bua dig. A table is stocked with tools — dental picks, tinctures, and toilet paper to wrap fragile specimens. In one corner boxes overflow with the dusty bones of beaver-sized rats, pygmy Stegodon (an extinct elephant relative) and stone tools awaiting entry in a database. In another corner sits a suitcase that looks overdue for retirement. It’s the original suitcase that carried ‘LB1′, the female type specimen of Homo floresiensis, out of Flores and back to his lab in Jakarta.

Sutikna’s colleague Wahyu Saptomo joins him in recounting the discovery. “I had a joke with Mike [Morwood],” says Saptomo. “I told him that if he left for Jakarta, we would find something big.” And sure enough, on the next-to-last day of the 2003 field season, local digger Benyamin Tarus scraped a trowel through damp clay and hit bone. Tarus called over Saptomo, who in turn called in the bone expert, Rokus Awe Due.

Awe Due has worked at Flores digs since 1963 and looks like a living fossil in his own right. But he had no trouble scrambling down 5.9 metres into the shored-up mine shaft that the team had dug over the precious two months. There he fixed his eyes on a bulging brow ridge and told Saptomo he was “200 per cent certain” they were looking at an archaic human.

The bone was as soft as the clay it was buried in and Sutikna knew drastic measures were needed to secure it for excavation. So he scoured Ruteng to buy UHU glue and nail polish remover – every bottle he could find. Sutikna rummages through his tinctures and produces a dainty vial of ‘Tokyo Night’. “All the people think we’re crazy,” he laughs. But Sutikna’s home-brewed hardening agent allowed the team to recover a nearly complete ancient hominid skeleton – one of just a few throughout the world – and deliver it to their hotel-room-turned-bone-lab. There he, Awe Due and Saptomo stayed up all night, carving at the clay with satay sticks. Their operation revealed a tiny skull, no bigger than a jumbo-sized grapefruit.

Awe Due had first reported to Morwood that they had discovered a young child. But now he saw worn teeth and fused sutures on the skull. He was forced to conclude that this was a tiny adult woman – about the height of a contemporary five-year-old.

“I was stunned,” Morwood recalls for the benefit of an Australian film crew working alongside me in Flores. Granted, he was familiar with the ‘island rule’, whereby large animals shrink, over generations, due to limited resources and an absence of predators. “But the mere thought that you could have a species of human undergoing the same processes of evolutionary downsizing was dumbfounding.”

Morwood next went to Australia and met with palaeoanthropologist Peter Brown, of the University of New England in Armidale, armed with a tooth found earlier that season. Brown was excited to hear about the skeleton, says Morwood, “but when I pulled out a copy of the tooth, that’s when he got really excited. That’s when he offered to buy me a cup of coffee and I knew I was onto something”.

Morwood and Brown rushed back to Jakarta to meet the field team arriving at the Centre for Archaeology, bearing Sutikna’s prized suitcase. When they opened it, “it was like Christmas,” Morwood says. “Nobody spoke. But Peter [Brown] went white – the blood just drained from his face.”

One look at the lower jaw of LB1, also known as The Little Lady of Flores or ‘Flo’ for short, and Brown knew this was not Homo sapiens. She had no chin, peculiar teeth, and primitive bony ridges under her incisors, last seen in hominids that are almost two million years older. Later he would reconstruct the height of Flo at just over one metre and her brain capacity at less than 400 cubic centimetres – about the size of a newborn baby’s.

Brown was stumped. “For me the skeleton was in the wrong place; Flores not Africa, and at the wrong time – it should have been more than a million years old.” At first he had a hard time believing the carbon dating results for Flo – just 18,000 years old – but further analysis confirmed the age. “It is not so easy to think outside the known universe to the extent that was necessary with Liang Bua,” Brown confesses.

It took Brown months to decide whether Flo was human – if she deserved a place in the genus Homo. Her brain would have been smaller than that of even our most primitive Homo ancestors. But intense discussion with colleagues eventually led Brown to dub the find Homo floresiensis.

On 28 October 2004, Flo made her debut in Nature. A wee 30-year-old lady, wielding stone tools in a cave kitchen full of Stegodons, came to life on the pages of National Geographic, newspapers across the world and countless websites. The media jumped on the ‘hobbit’ nickname bestowed on her by the dig team. She even had large feet for her size.

The sensation around hobbits caught Morwood off guard. “Normally the stakes in archaeology are pretty small,” he says. “It’s quite extraordinary to have the stakes get big. Suddenly the whole game changes.”

“I WAS THE FIRST to notice the pathology,” Maciej Henneberg tells me. The University of Adelaide anatomist is boarding a plane chartered for the Liang Bua symposium and field trip. A radio reporter called him at 7 am on 29 October 2004, requesting feedback on the discovery in Flores. “I said ‘What discovery?’, then told her to call me back in an hour.” Henneberg read Brown’s Nature paper online, and was immediately wary of Homo floresiensis. He diagnosed Flo as a modern Homo sapiens with microcephaly, a disorder that cripples brain growth. Within hours, his reaction hit the airwaves.

Today it’s Henneberg who feels Brown came to hasty conclusions. “The whole problem is that people create species first, then compare them.” By now we’re winding through rice paddies in a chartered car, en route to the hobbit cave. I point to a pretty view, but Henneberg has no time for that. “People find a few bones, call it a new species and then it persists.”

“These things are much harder to undo [once done],” adds Alan Thorne, a palaeoanthropologist from Australian National University in Canberra. Thorne and Henneberg were co-authors, with Indonesia’s Teuku Jacob, on a 2006 paper in the U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which argues Flo is a pygmy Homo sapiens of the Austromelanesian race – the same group that includes Australian aboriginals. Thorne has compiled some 145 features that define Australian aboriginals and contends “there isn’t a single feature that would exclude LB1 from that population” .

“Are you familiar with the word ‘crap’?” Peter Brown asks me when I recount Thorne’s claim. He didn’t attend the symposium – he knew he’d find it infuriating. Over email he insists, “this is a complete fiction, which will become obvious in publications later this year”. Brown himself is working on a detailed description of the two Liang Bua jaw bones recovered to date, and expects to revise classification of the Flores hominid. “I don’t think it’s Homo,” he says. “Certainly not australopithecus.” Until publication, this is all he will reveal.

The 2006 PNAS paper also claims Flo was riddled with disease and that on that basis alone she should not define a new species. The LB1 skull was deformed, showing asymmetry with a set of photos that mirror-image left and right halves of the skull. But Dean Falk, an expert on ancient brains, from Florida State University in Tallahassee, refutes that argument with quantitative analysis of a hobbit skull CT (computed tomography) scan.

And William Jungers, a lower limb expert from Stonybrook University in New York, can’t help but laugh at the authors’ assessment of the Liang Bua femurs as being lopsided. “One femur is missing its head so it rotates a bit more than the other when you lay it flat on the table,” he scoffs. Jungers claims both he and Falk demolished the sick hobbit theory at the March 2007 meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Philadelphia.

Nevertheless, microcephaly reared its shrunken head once again, in July 2007, at Jacob’s Flores symposium. Robert Martin from Chicago’s Field Museum repeated past concerns: “The brain of LB1 is simply too small to be explained by any normal arguments.” A specialist in body proportions, Martin pointed to geometric curves that plot brain size relative to body size for hominin species as well as the upward trend of brain size through time. Flo sank to the bottom of the deep end on both plots. Chalking this up as an aberrant species, says Martin, calls for special pleading. He still sees Flo as an aberrant individual.

Henneberg agrees: “One of the criteria we use for determining palaeopathology is falling out of normal distribution by more than three standard deviations.” Flo falls out by four or five. Henneberg says this is due to stunted brain growth – microcephaly – a symptom of some 400 syndromes that he and his colleagues have tallied up.

Dean Falk doesn’t need 400 syndromes. “Find us one specimen that shows the same features as LB1 and the story’s over,” she said to a symposium panel. “That’s all we ask.”

Falk’s presentation of brain case CT scans for Flo, microcephalics and healthy humans showed that Flo is similar to a healthy human – her brain lacked distinctive microcephalic features – but also unique. She’s says she’s 100 per cent certain it’s a new species. And while hobbit brains were small, her hunch is that they were well organised. Enlarged temporal and frontal lobes on H. floresiensis hint that she was a planner and an abstract thinker and maybe, just maybe, she could speak. “That’s still an open question,” says Falk.

AT THE END of the navigable road, our convoy of anthropologist experts piles out of 14 cars and gathers on a narrow bridge. Morwood has organised seating arrangements for the journey diplomatically and, as hoped, bloodshed amongst delegates has so far been averted. But now, academic arch-enemies find themselves milling about in dangerous proximity, unprotected by their PowerPoint presentations. A band of contemporary little people saves the day, however. Local elders dressed in colourful sarongs and head scarves burst into song and beckon researchers to join their procession towards the cave.

Surely every visitor that day already knew what Liang Bua looked like. But nobody, not even the most hardened hobbit-basher, could hide their awe when they rounded a bend and first laid eyes on a gaping natural cathedral.

The Liang Bua entrance is vast, yet somehow obscured by topography and tropical vegetation. As we penetrate it via a narrow path along a cliff face, the cave reveals itself to be vaster still, draped in stalactites and illuminated with soft light. There’s no denying that this would have made a cosy hole for hobbits. An area half the size of a football pitch allows plenty of room for delegates to spread out, cluster in cliques and steal furtive glances at enemy camps. It’s as bad as a high school dance, until villagers and local officials straining for a decent look at the visitors swarm the scene.

The crush of people in the cave makes it difficult to locate the archaeologists – Thomas Sutikna and crew. Though they had co-authored academic papers with many of that day’s visitors, few people would recognise them. In part, this was because the team had not been invited to Jacob’s symposium. Nor had they been officially informed of this visit. When I later asked Koeshardjono – Jacob’s right-hand man who led the field trip – why the Liang Bua archaeologists weren’t included, he explained that they only invited “experts”.

Most impressive are two deep shafts under excavation. Sector XII, at six metres deep, likely spans 100,000 years – the longest continuous archaeological record anywhere in Southeast Asia. Use of shoring planks, platforms and ladders allows for the deep penetration of time, methods that Malay and Philippine symposium delegates will soon try at home.

The sheer walls of Section XII reveal a layer cake of deposits. The stand-out is an 11,000-year-old band of white silt that the archaeologists claim divides the era of modern humans (above) and hobbits (below). Alas, no hominid bones have been found at this hole, now hitting bedrock, but prehistoric animal bones and hundreds of stone tools used by ancient people were recovered.

As I write this, the archaeologists are placing their hope in a second shaft, Section X. During the symposium visit, Sutikna and his team were just dipping through Section X’s white silt, reaching into the time of hobbits. Working immediately adjacent to Sections VII and XI, where LB1, or Flo, was recovered, feels particularly auspicious. With luck, Sutikna will soon be re-packing his cherished suitcase.

As the crowds died down, I found Alan Thorne in a private corner of the cave enjoying something of a revelation. “The most significant thing when you come to this site and you realise how big it is – is that it increases the chance that this is where it will be resolved.”

Djuna Ivereigh is a writer and photographer based in Bali, Indonesia.

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