|29 January 2007
'Hobbit' cave digs set to restart
Archaeologists who found the remains of human 'Hobbits' have gained permission to restart excavations at the cave where the specimens were found. Indonesian officials have blocked access to the cave since 2005, following a dispute over the bones. But Professor Richard Roberts, a member of the team that found the specimens, said the political hurdles had now been overcome.
The researchers claim that the remains belong to a novel species of human. But some researchers reject this assertion, claiming instead that the remains could belong to a modern human with a combination of small stature and a brain disorder. Finding other specimens in the cave, particularly one with an intact skull, is crucial to resolving the debate over whether the Hobbit's classification as a separate species - Homo floresiensis - is valid.
"This year we will back in Liang Bua again, back in the cave where we found the Hobbits," said Professor Roberts, from the University of Wollongong in Australia. "We'll probably be in there towards the middle of the year," he added. The Hobbit's discoverers are adamant it is an entirely separate human species that evolved a small size in isolation on its remote Indonesian island home of Flores.
In 2003 researchers found one near-complete skeleton, which they named LB1, along with the remains of at least eight other individuals. LB1 was an adult female who lived 18,000 years ago, stood just 1m (3ft) tall and possessed a brain size of around 400 cubic cm (24 cu inches) - about the same as that of a chimp. These observations could imply that humanlike creatures - hominids, or hominins - reached island South-East Asia much earlier than had been thought.
The find caused a sensation when it was unveiled in 2004, because it suggested human evolution had been much more complicated in South-East Asia than previously imagined. It also showed that another species of human had survived into "modern" times.
But not all researchers were happy about this hand grenade being tossed into one of palaeoanthropology's hallowed vestibules. Professor Teuku Jacob, based at Gadjah Mada University, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, contended that the bones of LB1 could have been those of a pygmy person with the condition microcephaly, which is characterised by a small brain. In 2004, Professor Jacob - known as Indonesia's "king of palaeoanthropology" - took the bones away from their repository in Jakarta to his lab in Yogyakarta, against the wishes of the researchers who found them. They were eventually returned. But the discoverers claimed the bones were extensively damaged in Jacob's lab during attempts to make casts.
After the accusations surfaced, Professor Jacob denied damaging the remains. Excavations at Liang Bua were reportedly blocked because Indonesian government officials would not issue exploration permits for projects that might prove Professor Jacob wrong. But the remaining issues now appear to have been smoothed over. "It's now a matter of getting everything organised so we can start digging again," said Professor Roberts. "This particular discovery seems to have prompted people to rethink what it is to be human, the relationship between brain size and behaviour, and whether hominin populations have been insulated from environmental factors. This indicates that they haven't."
Source: BBC News (25 January 2007)
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