'Hobbit woman' remains spark row among academics

By Steve Connor

LONDON - She may have only been a midget but her bones have generated a monumental row in the world of human palaeontology, which is still reeling from the dramatic implications of her discovery.

All the experts who have studied her tiny skull and diminutive skeleton believe that the "hobbit woman" found on a remote Indonesian island represents a new human species that only died out in recent history.

However, one maverick scientist disputes this interpretation, saying that she was just another member of our own species but with a congenital dwarfism disease.

Now Professor Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia has taken the matter into his own hands by locking her remains away in his personal vaults, making it difficult for other scientists to gain access to the priceless material.

Anthropologists fear that scientists outside Indonesia could now be prevented from studying the remains of what they are convinced is a dwarf species of human, named Homo floresiensis after the island of Flores where it lived until at least 11,000BC.

However, Professor Jacob insisted that the remains are simply those of an anatomically modern human - Homo sapiens - with a congenital disease.

Now he has angered his fellow anthropologists by requisitioning the remains of Flores woman for his own research purposes.

Under a private agreement with a fellow anthropologist, but without the apparent permission or knowledge of senior archaeologists in Indonesia, Professor Teuku has locked the bones away in his private vaults at his university in Yogyakarta.

Last month Australian and Indonesian scientists astonished the world by announcing the discovery of a new species of dwarf human who grew about 1m tall and lived as recently as 13,000 years ago.

It was described as one of the most significant finds in human palaeontology since the first Neanderthal skull was found 150 years ago.

However, Professor Jacob subsequently threw cold water on the claims by arguing that the grapefruit-sized skull belonged to an anatomically modern human who suffered from microcephaly, a deformity characterised by a very small brain.

"Everything points to the direction of Homo sapiens, especially the teeth. The teeth in the upper and lower jaw are clearly sapiens," Professor Jacob said at the time.

However, most other experts in the field dismissed the suggestion, including Professor Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong in Australia who was a senior member of the team that made the discovery.

"Professor Jacob's assertion that the remains are just a scaled-down version of Homo sapiens is incorrect. There are a plethora of anatomical features that argue against this conclusion," Professor Roberts said.

But the world should not have to accept the viewpoint of any one scientist, he said. "Hence the need to make the remains accessible for scientific scrutiny, wherever they are finally laid to rest," he added.

It is understood that Professor Jacob took personal possession of the skull, jawbone and arm bone under the terms of a private agreement with a long-time colleague, Professor Radien Soejono of Indonesia's Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, who was also a member of the original team who made the discovery and analysed the bones.

However, according to one scientist close the controversy, the bones were handed over without the knowledge or permission of the centre's director, Tony Djubiantono, or other senior members of his staff.

"They are extremely angry about this and are demanding that the material be returned as soon as possible or they will be making formal complaints at ministerial level," the scientist said.

Professor Roberts said that Professor Jacob may feel disgruntled about the fact that other scientists outside Indonesia have had early access to the remains and so were able to describe them formally in the journal Nature.

"There's a touch of sour grapes I suspect. When the 'hobbit' remains were unearthed, Professor Soejono promised to hand them to his long-time colleague Professor Jacob," Professor Roberts said.

"But an existing memorandum of understanding between the University of New England [in Australia] and the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology prevented such a transfer," he said.

"This decision was certainly not taken to belittle Professor Jacob or any other Indonesian researchers," he added.

The fear now is that Professor Jacob, who has a reputation for closely guarding fossils in his possession, will limit access to the remains of Homo floresiensis, especially by western scientists.

Peter Brown of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia - who formally described the species in Nature - said he is very concerned. "I doubt that the material will ever be studied again," he said.

In the past it was the custom for important bones and fossils to be controlled by individual scientists but in Europe and most of the world this is no longer considered ethical, said Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London.

Neither it is ethical in the world of human palaeontology for individual scientists to decide who does and does not study a set of important remains, he said.

"It casts as shadow over all future work on H. floresiensis. It's very sad that someone not involved in the study can hijack it in this way," Professor Stringer said.

"The danger is that he will restrict access to the material or any future material recovered from this important site," he said.

- INDEPENDENT

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf01 at 22 Dec 2014 15:23:17 Processing Time: 521ms