Awakening the Sleeping Bones: Scientific Access and the Woman of Flores

Author:  Moorhouse Anna
Institution:  English and Cell and Molecular Biology
Date:  August 2005

Somewhere near the tri-colored lakes of Kelimutu on the island of Flores in Indonesia, amid the hoards of Komodo dragons and the giant rats that are endemic to the island, there lies a cave. This large limestone cave, named Liang Bua, rose to fame last year when an international research team led by Mike Morwood, associate professor at the University of New England, and Radien Soejono, professor at the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology, unearthed the 18,000-year-old bones of a one-meter-tall adult female whom they would later classify as a specimen of a new human species: Homo floresiensis.

Liang-Bua: the Real Cave of Wonders. Photo Courtesy of Chris Turney, University of Wollongong.

Liang-Bua: the Real Cave of Wonders. Photo Courtesy of Chris Turney, University of Wollongong.

Their findings were published on Oct. 28, 2004 in the British journal Nature, and since then, have sparked a number of heated, and at times spiteful, debates over both the legitimacy of the classification and the right of scientific access to the skeleton. Now, nearly eight months after Homo floresiensis was revealed to the world, we can see how the politics of discovery fuel the egos of science, leaving the rest of us very much in the dark.

Lovers and Haters

Soon after the first Flores discovery, Morwood and Soejono unearthed six more ancient humans at Liang Bua. The most recent died only 13,000 years ago - approximately the same time that scientists believe Homo sapiens would have been trudging across the land bridge from modern-day Russia into North America.

Morwood, Soejono, and the rest of the archeological community, however, had little opportunity to study the bones. In December 2004, professor emeritus Teuku Jacob of the Gajah Mada University carted most of the remains off to his laboratory in Java. Jacob, who was not at all connected with either the original dig or the two institutions orchestrating the dig, told the Australian radio show PM in December 2004 that it was not his intention to interrupt research. Jacob contended that he had been asked by the dig team to give his opinion on the matter, and to do so meant taking the bones. "Professor Soejono asked me to study it last year, but then I had no news, and last July he called me again to study it," Jacob explained.

Unfortunately, not all members of the dig team were in favor of this arrangement.

Jacob promised to return the bones to the Centre for Archeology in Jakarta by the beginning of January 2005, but that date came and went and nothing was returned. Finally, at the end of February, Jacob fulfilled his promise and returned all but two leg bones to the Centre. He kept the leg bones of the type specimen LB1 for further study.

Meanwhile, other archeologists saw fit to take the matter into their own hands. Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig was able to carry a 1-gram chip of LB1's rib from Jacob's lab to his own for analysis. Hublin informed The Scientist in February that as a result, he had received many malicious e-mails calling him unethical, even though, he said, he had received permission from the Centre to remove the chip and perform the ancient DNA analysis. But despite his own ill-treatment, Hublin still sides with Jacob in criticizing the way the American and British presses have spun their story. "The way it's presented in most of the media is that a group of scientists has made a fantastic discovery, and this discovery has been 'stolen' by an old Indonesian scientist," Hublin said. "I do believe it's a case of Western arrogance."

Inside the excavation site. Photo Courtesy of Chris Turney, University of Wollongong.

Inside the excavation site. Photo Courtesy of Chris Turney, University of Wollongong.

Another prominent figure in this ordeal is Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist at the University of New England in Australia and one of the most outspoken critics of Jacob. Brown was the bone specialist for the original dig and is well-known for the fervor with which he describes the discovery of the little woman. Soon after Jacob removed the bones from Jakarta, Brown told PM, "Professor Jacob I think has a history of keeping fossil materials to himself, collecting materials, retain[ing] them in his collection and making it difficult for anybody else to have access to them."

Scrolls, Scholars, and the "Secrecy Rule"

Brown and the other archeologists feared that the bones would fall into the same cracks as had the Dead Sea Scrolls, only sixty years earlier. The nearly 2000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls were first discovered quite by accident by a shepherd in 1947. A team of archeologists eventually uncovered over 850 documents by archeological excavation in a series of caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, near the Wadi Qumran in Israel. The dig teams published most of the documents relatively quickly; the contents from Cave 1 entered into print between 1950 and 1956, while the text from another eight caves were published as a single volume in 1963.

The one exception to this publishing race was Cave 4, whose contents made up about 40% of the total volume. The international team that had been assigned to this particular cave had been selected by Father Roland de Vaux, a member of the Dominican Order in Jerusalem. After publishing their first volume in 1968, Father de Vaux closed off the cave and imposed a "secrecy rule," which allowed only members of the original International Team to view the material. After the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Israeli Antiquities Authority gained full control over all the scrolls, which slowed down the publication process even further.

Finally in 1991, the International Team turned over 17 reconstructed Cave 4 documents to the Huntington Library in San Marino California. Their publication heralded the subsequent release of a set of photographs not covered by the secrecy rule; thereafter, the rule was lifted by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

The fear of a similar situation, in which a select group of scholars would have access to the Flores bones with the exclusion of all other parties, was palpable. Brown mournfully told The New Zealand Herald in late December 2004, "I doubt that the material will ever be studied again."

An artistic rendering of Homo floresiensis. Courtesy of artist Peter Schouten and the National Geographic Society.

An artistic rendering of Homo floresiensis. Courtesy of artist Peter Schouten and the National Geographic Society.

Yet, presumably, the fear was palpable on both sides.

Despite the agreement between the Indonesian Research Centre for Archaeology and the University of New England, tensions would have been high with so many Australian scientists being given priority over the fossils.

Thomas Sutkina, another member of the Flores team, told The Times in Britain that at first, the Centre for Archeology had objected to Jacob's removal of the bones but in the end had no choice but to give in. "Let's say he has borrowed them so Indonesian scientists get their turn in studying them and he agreed to not put them in harm's way."

Still, Sutkina was quick to add: "Science must not be complicated by the origin of the scientists. In science, we also should not be directed by seniority."

Not a Woman?

Since Jacob returned the bones to the Centre, other debates have erupted. One possibility raised is LB1 is in fact a man rather than a woman. Also under investigation is the possibility that LB1 is not a type specimen for a new species, but instead a modern human who suffered the damaging effects of microcephaly, a pathological condition that can result in a undersized head and brain. Jacob leads the pack in advancing both these arguments, as well as the theory that LB1 was simply a member of a pygmy tribe, not unlike the many Homo sapiens pygmy groups that live throughout the world.

"My interest is that the fossils stay at the repository in Jakarta and that researchers there benefit from it, and that there's international access to the material," Brown stated, with great finality, "It has to be tested by other scientists."

References and Suggested Reading

Brown P, et al. (2004). A new small-bodied hominid from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature. 431: 1055-61.

Falk D, et al. (2005). The Brain of LB1. Science. 308: 242-245.

University of Wollongong Homo floresiensis Homepage Skulduggery. The Economist.

Hawkes N. (2004). Professor fuels row over Hobbit man fossils . The Times.

PM Transcript. 3 Dec 2004.

Connor S. (2004). 'Hobbit woman' remains spark row among academics. The New Zealand Herald.

Viegas J. (2005). Pygmy Village Casts Doubt on Hobbit' Human. Discovery News.