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Mike Morwood: Archaeologist whose 'hobbit' discovery sparked fresh debate on human evolution


Professor Mike Morwood gained international notoriety when, as the leader of an Australian-Indonesian archaeological dig, in 2003, he co-discovered the remains of a previously unknown miniature human species, which soon became known as the “hobbit”.

 It was reported by some scientists to be among the most outstanding discoveries in paleoanthropology in over half a century.

Although over the past decade there have been many arguments amongst the scientific community as to its validity, for Morwood and co-discoverer, Indonesian Raden Soejono, it was the find of a lifetime which sparked international debate amongst scientists and forced a reassessment of the story of man’s evolutionary process; far from being the linear narrative of successive waves of colonisation out of Africa, as once thought, the process was, in fact, one with numerous twists and turns involving many different species.

The discovery occurred at Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, where clay was scraped away from a tiny skull, buried for so long that it was like a wet paper towel, and assumed to be that of a child. However, upon laboratory analysis, tests indicated that it and the attendant bones came instead from a small but fully grown adult female, a species now known as Homo floresiensis, but quickly dubbed the “hobbit” by the media, following the public announcement in 2004.

The findings caused consternation and excitement, because the cave also unearthed sophisticated stone tools similar to others found around the world in Homo erectus sites. The important difference was that the Flores tools were tiny, the right size for people of only 3ft tall with a brain the size of a chimp or grapefruit. In addition, evidence of fire and bones were found, some butchered, of animals such as an extinct species of giant rat, dwarf elephant-like creatures known as stegodonts, and giant Komodo dragons, still found in Indonesia.

Morwood – said by one Australian commentator to have “a touch of Indiana Jones about him” due to the tireless energy and enthusiasm of his explorations in rugged terrain and his partiality for a battered floppy hat – had previously discovered, in central Flores, crude stone artefacts from 840,000 years ago that presumably belonged to Homo erectus.  He was hoping to find traces of subsequent occupants of the island upon his return in 2001.

Remarkably, the skull was found in a layer of sediments dating back only 18,000 years, long after the Neanderthals had vanished from the face of the Earth, having lost the evolutionary battle to Homo sapiens, the sole human species on Earth by then. This had huge ramifications for the varying theories of human evolution.

In 2004, Morwood and his colleagues suggested that a number of features identified the bones as belonging to an entirely new species, Homo floresiensis. It was suggested that it could have been a descendant of Homo erectus that arrived early on Flores, perhaps using boats, and which, becoming stranded, evolved its petite size as an adaptation to the limited food supply available. They also proposed the unimaginable, that Homo floresiensis lived contemporaneously on Flores with Homo sapiens.

However, over time studies showed other anomalies – and so it was suggested that perhaps Homo floresiensis descended not from Homo erectus but from an earlier, more primitive species, such as Homo habilis, which in many ways more closely resembled australopithecines. This species emerged from Africa 2 to 3 million years earlier than believed and travelled to South-East Asia, where they evolved in isolation. This hypothesis suggests that the ancestors of the hobbits were probably pre-erectus members of Homo who were already small when they arrived on Flores and then perhaps underwent some island dwarfing later.

Detractors, however, argued that the hobbit remains did not represent a previously unknown species. They suspected that the skeleton instead belonged to a Homo sapien who had a disease of some sort that produced the specimen’s unusual features. Nevertheless, they have yet to put forward a diagnosis that can explain the hobbit’s unusual mix of traits to everyone’s satisfaction.

To that end, Morwood continued his quest in Liang Bua and other caves on Flores, in the hope of discovering a second skull to establish that the first one had not been a deviant specimen – but to date, excavators have recovered just the bones of about 14 hobbits.

Although nine years have passed since the hobbit’s arrival, there is no doubt that Morwood’s discovery will continue to inspire new inquiries for many years to come. The Flores find also suggests that rather than being an evolutionary backwater, Asia may have had a larger role in human evolution than previously thought.

Michael John Morwood was born in Auckland, New Zealand in 1950. The son of a baker, Morwood was successful at school and progressed to Auckland University to read archaeology, where he also completed his Master’s degree. In 1976, he moved to Australia to begin work on his doctorate at the Australian National University in Canberra, where he completed his dissertation on “Art and Stone: Towards a Prehistory of Central-Western Queensland”. His PhD was awarded in 1980.

After several years as a regional archaeologist working for the state of Queensland, Morwood became a leading authority on Aboriginal rock art. In 1981, he joined the faculty of the University of New England, Armidale. His lectures on rock art became the basis of an authoritative book, Visions from the Past, published in 2002. In 2007, Morwood moved to the coastal university at Wollongong, New South Wales, where he was a Professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Studies.

Morwood’s interest in archaeological digs in Indonesia derived from his reading of the early work of Eugène Dubois, the Dutch paleoanthropologist and geologist who discovered “Java Man” in 1891. Morwood wanted to excavate sites with the potential for information on Homo erectus occupation in the area and was also curious about the neighbouring islands in the north, wanting to search for traces of the first human migrations into Australia.

Morwood wrote a number of books and journals and received many awards, including, in 2012, the Australian Archaeological Association’s highest honour, the Rhys Jones Medal.

Morwood died of cancer. He is  survived by his wife, Francelina,  their daughter, Catherine, and his first wife, Kathryn.

Mike Morwood, archaeologist: born Auckland, New Zealand 27 October 1950; married twice (one daughter); died Darwin, Australia 23 July 2013.