Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"The Discovery of the Hobbit" by Mike Morwood & Penny van Oosterzee

If you have been enthralled by the Hobbit of Flores find - this book is essential backfill. Mike Morwood indulges the armchair paleoanthropolgist. You are transported from a burning clump of spinifex on Australia's north-west coast to the sunbleached central basin of Flores, then onward into the cavern of Liang Bua - a cool umbrella on a steamy hillside of coffee trees.

You will vicariously delight in details of the dig and feel the clay impacting beneath your fingernails and the reverberating hum of the generator. Mike introduces us to people involved, from the feisty PhD student whose state of undress distracted the men, to the ballad singer of the coffee break. We hear of pigdogs and Flores ponies, whipping ceremonies and crimes of passion, and the sweet spiced coffee and coconut milk. And then the tantalising find - a petite skeleton, more like an early African hominid than anyone from around these parts.

The nickname "Hobbit" was inspirational, resembling as it did Tolkien's little people in stature, unusual feet (long - perhaps hairy too), pot belly and, if folklore is to be believed, pointy ears and a legendary appetite: "If food was served to them on plates made of pumpkin rind, they would eat the plates too."

But it's not all "National Geographic". We follow Morwood's trauma of having the team's precious discovery handed over to appease an oldboy obligation - at the cost of scientific fair play and integrity of the specimens.

Morwood wasn't one to rollover. He had a wildcard on hand in the form of Peter Brown, an experienced palaeoanthropologist, who was plucked from Australia at a critical moment. This delayed - but didn't ultimately prevent - the handover. Brown initiated investigations such as estimation of cranial capacity. This was achieved by the startlingly low tech, but efficient, mustard seed method. You actually do use mustard seeds, filling the sealed-off cranium, then pouring out the seeds into a volumetric measure. Technophiles may be reassured to know a CT scan was also performed. The tiny brain size had everyone buzzing. How could such a creature use fire and tools and make the sea crossing to Flores? Furthermore, to prosper for millennia, until recent times, seemed incredible.

It was startling to be reminded how accepted knowledge may be an artefact of the technical abilities of the day. The Hobbit lay dormant thanks to the difficulty of deep excavation, which requires skilful shoring. Sites were prematurely abandoned when the layers became 'sterile', thus missing enriched layers beneath. Morwood boasts his shoring skills were passed on to him by colleagues who attended a grave-digging course. We also learn the commonly quoted date for human colonisation of Australia (40,000 years ago) was the product of a dating technique of the times, and a gross underestimate.

As well as the struggle to retain, and then reclaim, the specimens, Morwood's team had another trial to endure. Dissenters rallied in noisy public denial. Folk were disgruntled for a variety of reasons, from personal to ideological. They spouted excuses as shamelessly as creationists: these midgets must be diseased - microcephalics, cretins - anything but a new species. As Penny Van Oosterzee explained on Radio National: "I suppose people really don't like having their sacred cows jumped up and down on, it causes a bit of flatulence."

Penny Van Oosterzee has an interest in the Wallace line and Island Theory. She describes how isolation and limited resources can mold species. We are served a freaks' parade of island fauna - from mini elephants to monster rodents (both the size of small bears) - as a backdrop to the discussion on how and where the Hobbit could fit into our family-of-hominid album.

Another of Morwood's strengths is his willingness to respect local customs. When the need arose, chickens were sacrificed and entrails consulted, and work continued smoothly. He also pays homage to the Catholic priest Father Verhoeven, who was one of the first to take notice of stone tool remains and made the radical deduction hominids had reached Flores about 750,000 years ago. Liang Bua had served as his classroom before excavation there. Now it has become a classroom to the world.


  1. Sounds like a great book, can't wait till mine arrives, thx for the review.

  2. Yes. This Hobbit tale has been fantastic so far - and it's only just beginning.


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