THE TROUBLE WITH HOBBITS © Duncan Graham 2007
The sub-title for this review could read: Australiana Jones and the Tropical Leprechauns, but that might deter readers who expect learned discussion on these pages.
Although The Discovery of the Hobbit is about a serious topic, the unearthing of skeletal remains in Indonesia that have rocked thinking about the evolution of humankind, it’s also a rollicking, bone-jarring adventure.
Political intrigue, rampant nationalism, confrontations across continents, backstabbing and badmouthing, skeletons in cupboards and, of course, skullduggery.
The bare bones of the story are well known: Back in 2004, an Indonesian-Australian (or should that order be reversed because the funding came from Down Under?) team of archaeologists digging in a cool cave called Liang Bua on Flores, claimed a remarkable discovery.
They said that a year earlier they’d found the remains of a woman, a member of a previously unknown species of mini hominids, a now extinct race of dark-skinned people with small brains and long arms. Measured against a modern Caucasian the first lady of Flores would have just reached her big cousin’s navel.
She and her family (other remains were found later) were baptized Homo floresiensis by the scientists. But the term Hobbits resonated with a public still in thrall of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The little woman had probably died about 18,000 years ago and her race vanished maybe 5,000 years later. She was about 30 when she perished from unknown causes.
Not all were delighted with the find; although the scientists seem to have tried to be inclusive, the Australians, and Professor Mike Morwood in particular, were doing all the running.
The international media was going ape and all wanted to talk to the bearded bule who looked the part of the dauntless white explorer. A planned press conference for Jakarta to coincide with the Australian release of the news and featuring Indonesian experts didn’t go ahead and Morwood seems not to know why.
As all foreigners who live in this country understand well, robust nationalism, well infected with xenophobia is as widespread as dengue fever. In Yogyakarta, far from Flores, and not involved in the dig, was Professor Teuku Jacob, head of the palaeoanthropology laboratory at the prestigious University of Gadjah Mada.
This senior academic was also a war veteran who had broadcast resistance messages during the Japanese occupation. His lifelong friend was another hero from the same period, Raden Pandji Soejono, a Javanese aristocrat and former head of the National Center for Archaeology.
Soejono had worked at Liang Bua in the 1980s but had not excavated deeply and apparently hadn’t had his work published. In the world of science this is an awesome failing.
As the skeleton had been found in Flores she was Indonesian and the grubby hands of uncouth foreigners insensitive to protocols should be kept well away from her fragile fibula. This was so delicate that when first found (by Indonesians while Morwood was absent) it ‘had the consistency of wet blotting paper’.
In this book Morwood said he ‘anticipated healthy debate’ about the find. But by his own admission he was ‘a newcomer to Indonesia who was politically naive’.
When Soejono wanted to hand over the skeleton to Jacob without allowing the finders to set terms for access and be acknowledged, a distressed Morwood was told that giving credit to young researchers was ‘not the Indonesian way.’
If you think only the coarse and the crass behave badly and that the better educated have evolved to follow superior codes of behavior, then this book is a revelation. Be you peasant or professor, we are still subject to the human evils of jealousy, hoarding, chicanery, dinosaur-sized egos and all the other sins of Adam. This is particularly so when personal reputations are at stake and someone else is invading our territory.
You can understand their sensitivity; if you’d built your life and a splendid teaching career on the foundation of a theory that was suddenly undermined and destroyed by an upstart from afar digging on your patch, you’d be fighting to discredit the discovery.
Then there was the overburden of bureaucracy, and not all on the Indonesian side. At one stage Morwood was forbidden to travel to Indonesia by his fearful university because a government travel warning had been issued.
He eventually got permission for a quick trip provided he prepared a detailed schedule, including the exact time to travel from Soekarno-Hatta to the railway station. Easier to date a dodo.
I can’t tell you how it all ended because it hasn’t. Morwood and his supporters still reckon theirs is the biggest find in a century, set to rewrite evolutionary theories.
Meanwhile Jacob, backed by scientists from overseas, including Australia, say the wee lady was a retarded modern human pygmy suffering from microcephalia. This is a neurological disorder where the child is born with a small head.
It seems that in this fossil fight Morwood has all the big battalions of international science on his side and that Jacob is running a guerilla campaign for which he’s well equipped.
At one stage the old professor took a team of six researchers to Flores and spent five days measuring bodies, concluding that there were families of small people, perhaps with Hobbit ancestors.
Adding a touch of mysticism, the locals had tales of hobgoblins in the hills called Ebu Gogo who when given food also ate the plates.. Australian Aborigines have similar yarns (minus the dispensing of dishwashing), as do other cultures.
The book, co-authored by science writer Penny van Oosterzee gets bogged down at times with some lessons in archaeology. It’s also corrupted with clichés when more imaginative writing would have lifted the text.
Fortunately these complaints are offset by some frank and funny anecdotes. An earlier proposal for the Hobbit to be called Homo floresianus was fortunately buried when it was realized how palaeoanthropology students, with minds as dirty as their fingernails, might corrupt the name.
An artist commissioned to paint a portrait of Ms Flores shouldering a dead giant rodent added male genitalia. Apparently someone thought Hobbiteses too ladylike to have been rat-catchers and that equality had yet to evolve.
Thoroughly fed up with the demands of a film crew re-enacting a raft journey to Flores Morwood jumps up to remonstrate, falls over and breaks a bone. The confrontations between the deadline-conscious Australians and the status sensitive Indonesians should be used in handbooks on cross-cultural behavior.
Eclipsing all this are the fascinating questions. You don’t need to be an academic to build your own theories: Were the Hobbits really hominids? Their brain volume measured only 380 cc which is chimp size. The previous minimum qualification for entry to the human club was 500 cc, but definitions crumble once exposed to the light of fresh finds.
The evidence is that the Hobbits used stone tools, had captured fire and worked in groups. So they probably had language. Did they co-exist with humans? How did they become extinct? Or have they?
Why Flores? It may have once been joined to adjacent Sumbawa, the possible source of migrating hominids. Deep and turbulent waters protected the island from intruders. The so-called ‘island rule’ decrees that mammals shrink over the ages when confined to islands with limited resources and no predators.
Now it’s Professor Morwood’s turn to tremble every time he reads the scientific journal Nature; how long before the next batch of bright young wombats digs up more bones and artifacts that will make the Hobbit as dated as the safari suit? Watch this space.
The Discovery of the Hobbit
By Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee
Published 2007 by Random House Australia
(First published in The Sunday Post 23 December 07)