Indonesian archaeologist recalls Flores ‘hobbit’ fossil find 15 years on, and what it meant for him and Indonesian archaeology
It was a discovery that amazed scientists – a fossilised relative of humans just 106cm tall. Emanuel Saptomo recalls what happened next: a chase around town buying nail polish remover to use as adhesive, and a decision to forgo air travel for a ferry and bus ride, with an extra ticket for ‘Flo’
Indonesian archaeologist Emanuel “Wahyu” Saptomo’s eyes dance as he recalls the discovery of fossil “Flo the hobbit” 15 years ago. It was the evening of September 6, 2003, during a dig in the cathedral-like limestone cave of Liang Bua, on the sparsely populated island of Flores.
A team from the Indonesian National Research Centre for Archaeology (Arkenas) was looking for evidence of Homo sapiens migration from Asia to Australia when they uncovered the remains of a small hominid, whose origins continue to mystify scientists to this day.
It was Wahyu’s first professional dig. More than a decade later he was one of four Indonesians featured on “The World’s Most Scientific Minds 2014” list based on research citation analysis compiled by Thomson Reuters. He was credited alongside colleagues and fellow archaeologists Thomas Sutikna and Jatmiko, and late palaeontologist Rokus Awe Due.
As members of Arkenas prepared to return to Flores to continue fieldwork at the site this month, Wahyu recalled how, on that eventful Saturday evening, assistant archaeologist Benjamin Tarus was excavating the ground with a trowel 10.7 metres (35 feet) below the cave floor. As night fell, Tarus’ trowel uncovered an object that on further exploration was revealed to be a fossilised, human-like skull.
Returning at dawn the next day, the archaeologists carefully continued their excavation, eventually unearthing an almost intact hominid fossil only 106cm (3 feet 6 inches) in height. It’s brain, it was later determined, would have been the size of a grapefruit.
Wahyu says his heart was racing at the unprecedented discovery. The remains were later classified as Homo floresiensis and were found to be about 68,000 years old.
The find baffled the archaeologists, and questions swirled. The tiny hominid looked too frail to have walked out of Africa, or to have swum the treacherously deep waters that surround Flores.
“I knew that whatever this was, it was important,” Wahyu told the South China Morning Post.
The discovery was even more fateful because the dig had almost been abandoned a week earlier, Wahyu reveals. Lead researcher and Arkenas founding director Professor Raden Panji Soejono ordered the closure of a rocky excavation pit after the team hit a flowstone floor – caused by calcite deposits formed by the flow of water – 3.7 metres beneath the surface.
Then Professor Mike Morwood – from the University of New England and co-leader of the research – estimated that, given the cave’s 15-metre height, the true floor would lie 10 metres below the flowstone. Sutikna, who later succeeded Soejono as lead researcher, agreed with Morwood.
Soejono gave the team six days to test whether the theory was correct. With the help of local field workers, they toiled to break through the calcite layer, which was 60cm thick.
Neither Morwood – by then bound for Australia – nor Sutikna, who had fallen ill, were at the site when their theory was proven, however, nor when the hominid’s remains were found,.although it was Morwood who later came up with the hobbit nickname, after J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional characters.
Wahyu recalls that the fossilised body parts were extremely fragile. Pieces crumbled at the stroke of a brush. To protect them, the team dug out the sediment in which the bones were embedded and took them back to their hotel to be cleaned.
Once this painstaking work was completed, the remains had to be strengthened with adhesive to transport them safely. Acetone was the most reliable and easily available option, so the team scoured the beauty salons and suppliers of the town of Ruteng to buy up all their stocks of nail polish remover, cotton wool and tissues.
The next difficulty was getting the parts to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. “It’s not like we could sit her on our lap on a plane. But handing her over to the airline’s baggage crew was out of the question. And we’d rather not have the security staff ask us what we had in our suitcases as we ran her through the X-rays,” Wahyu says.
The safest option was to take the next boat to Bali, which was to depart from West Flores five days later. From Bali, the team boarded a bus to Jakarta – a journey taking 25 hours. “We bought an extra ticket to seat the hobbit remains. We reached Jakarta safely and the rest is history.”
Scientific analysis revealed that the remains were those of a female that had been about 25 years old at the time of death about 68,000 years ago. She acquired the nickname Flo, a reference to Flores. To date, hers is the only complete specimen of the species found, although fragments of other “Flores man” fossils have since been unearthed at Liang Bua.
Scientists now say there is evidence that Homo floresiensis roamed the island roughly between 190,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Flo bears an uncanny resemblance to Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. How Flo came to be born so much more recently than Australopithecus, and so far away from Africa, are among the questions that continue to mystify scientists.
Australian palaeoanthropologist Peter Brown said in a 2014 podcast on Nature.com that he would have been less surprised if Morwood had told him he had found an alien spaceship in Flores. British anthropologist Chris Stringer called Flo the missing Asian branch of the human evolutionary family tree.
Since his dramatic debut as a professional archaeologist on Flores, Wahyu has collaborated with revered scientists from around the world, including US evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk, British geochronologist Kira Westaway of Macquarie University, Australia, and the director of the Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Richard “Bert” Roberts.
“So many disciplines and nationalities are involved in the Liang Bua research. But as Indonesians, we host and manage the site of the discovery,” says Wahyu. He says the Smithsonian museum in Washington and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, are among the prestigious institutions that have sought to form partnerships with Arkenas.
According to Wahyu, although Indonesia has led the research into Homo floresiensis, it has not been easy for the nation to gain global recognition for these efforts. Credit for the discovery often goes to Australia-based scientists, which Wahyu believes stems from how it has been reported.
Most of the journalists following the hobbit story work for “big companies”, he says, and cater to audiences that expect such significant discoveries to be made by Westerners.
“Mike [Morwood] never thought it was right. He always acknowledged that the wealth of knowledge on which he built his career as a professor, he gained from Indonesia. Until he passed away in 2013, Mike strived to give Indonesian archaeology a voice in the international media, and applied protocols for journalists to always involve Arkenas first. Today, his successor Bert Roberts continues those protocols,” Wahyu says.
Forging lifelong friendships has been a valued part of Wahyu’s archaeological career, he says. These friends include field workers from the villages close to the Liang Bua cave, for whom the annual fieldwork missions have become a seasonal source of income.
“They also become an informal educational opportunity for locals to learn about archaeology and their hometown’s significant contributions to science,” he says.
In return, the Floresians have invited the visiting scientists to take part in some of their most sacred rituals. “Many locals still practise their indigenous religion in tandem with Catholicism. When they host their customary ceremonies, we get invited and they are delighted to see us there,” Wahyu says.
The Arkenas team members who returned to Liang Bua this month will continue their fieldwork until late June. They are hoping to make progress in filling in the 15,000-year gap between the extinction of Homo floresiensis and the arrival of the first Homo sapiens in Flores.
Wahyu, meanwhile, says he may revisit the site of one of Indonesia’s most important archaeological findings for a week “at some point”. He is now based in Jakarta as Arkenas’ spokesman.
“We aim to establish an archaeological learning centre in Liang Bua in the future. Hopefully the younger archaeologists will be more prepared to package our legacy of research into attractive narratives that locals, students and tourists can identify with. But for now, we’re focusing on building up a credible body of knowledge to base future engagements on,” he says.
“We also aim to raise awareness that Indonesians have every right to be proud of Indonesia’s contributions to the scientific world.”