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12 December 2005
'Hobbits' may be earliest Australians

The tiny hobbit-like humans of Indonesia may have lived in Australia before they became extinct about 11,000 years ago. The startling claim comes from archaeologist Mike Morwood, leader of the team that in 2003 uncovered remains of the 1m-tall hominid at Liang Bua cave on Indonesia's Flores island.
     They believe the pint-size person - known officially as Homo floresiensis and unofficially as the 'Hobbit' - was wiped out by a volcanic eruption that spared their Homo sapiens neighbours. Speaking at a public lecture in Perth, Professor Morwood from the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, raised the prospect that Hobbits colonised Australia before Aboriginal settlers arrived about 60,000 years go. He suggested that the Hobbits may have been pushed out by the bigger people, in part because their population was too small to compete. He suggested that further field work at sites in Indonesia and northern Australia could provide answers.
     But one of Professor Morwood's colleagues on the discovery team was surprised by the notion of Hobbits in Australia. "It's the first I've heard about it," said Bert Roberts, a dating expert with the University of Wollongong.
"Call me a wet blanket, but I'm not sure where Mike thinks he's going to excavate." Professor Roberts said conditions during the north Australian wet season meant that small, ancient remains were unlikely to have survived.
He noted that no early human remains have been unearthed in northern Australia and said that even the remains of the giant prehistoric animals, the mega-fauna, were scarce.
     "Realistically, there's one cave on the planet with the remains of this species. How about looking some place close to Liang Bua cave," Professor Roberts said. There is also the troubling question of how the Hobbits would have travelled south from their Indonesian homeland. To date, there's no hard evidence they could sail or raft.
     Professor Morwood's surprising suggestion follows a recent report in the journal Nature that the team has been denied exploration permits to excavate at Liang Bua cave, although other sites are approved. "We're waiting for the dust to settle," said Professor Roberts, referring to a long-running dispute with Indonesia's senior paleoanthropologist, Teuku Jacob of Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta. Professor Jacob, who temporarily snatched the Hobbit remains, claimed the creature was a deformed human and wished to work at the cave to prove his point.

Source: The Australian (8 December 2005)

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