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Gulliver's Travels:
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Laputan Logic*
Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Ebu Gogo really just a pinhead

Posted on Monday 21 February 2005

Last December, I noted that the bones of the now famous Homo floresiensis skeleton, which were recently unearthed in Flores by Indonesian and Australian scientists, had been taken out of Jakarta's Centre for Archaeology for examination by Professor Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta. This action was done without the permission of the Centre's director, Tony Djubiantono or the Australians but apparently with the co-operation of the head of the Indonesian team, Professor Radien Soejono who had requested Professor Jacob's expert opinion. What followed was a wrangle between the different parties, with the Australian co-discoverers accusing Jacob of "stealing" the bones especially as he continued to miss deadlines - which he had agreed to - for returning the bones.

The latest is that the bones will be returned today, the 21st Feb 2005.

Jacob has publicly expressed great scepticism about whether these bones truly do represent a new species and has argued that they are in fact the bones of a modern, though pygmy, human being with a congenital growth abnormality known as microcephaly which explains its abnormally small skull. He argues that this is not such a rare occurrence, especially in heavily interbred populations, such as on islands, and that in that in every other respect, the skeleton is not particularly remarkable. Pygmy humans are known to have colonised the Indonesian islands and a diminutive people known as negritos continues to live today in isolated pockets across the archipelago.

This saga now appears to be the lining up of forces on both sides of the acrimonious "Out of Africa" vs. "Multi-regionalism" debate. Jacob is a skeptic of the former theory (i.e. that modern humans replaced all other human species in a wave of migration out of Africa some fifty to a hundred thousand years ago) and is a supporter of the multi-regional theory. Jacob has allowed other well-known multi-regionalists, Professor Maciej Henneberg of Adelaide University and Doctor Alan Thorne of the Australian National University, to examine the bones over the protests of the Australian scientists who co-discovered them (whom seem to have a strongly "Out of Africa" bent). Professor Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London another well-known "Out of Africa"-ist who is convinced that Homo floresiensis represents a separate species. This debate continues to represent a running sore in paleoanthropology and there certainly seems to be no love lost on either sides.

I thought it would be interesting to hear Teuku Jacob's opinion in his own words from an article that he wrote last December for Indonesia's national newspaper Kompas . It was translated and placed on the Internet by Andya Primanda and I have reproduced it here. More on this controversy from the perspective of an actual paleoanthropologist can be got at JohnHawks.net.

Conflict from Flores: Storm in a Teacup

In the last two months, the international media had been clamouring over Flores man, acclaimed as a new species and considered as the most important human fossil discovery in the last 50 years.

The news had been so spectacular, for it was announced in Nature, a prominent scientific journal based in London. Newspaper, radio, and television journalists pounced at the announcement and added sensational bits to the story. For the sake of publicity the Australian scientists disregard their government's travel warning.

The discovery comes from archaeological excavations in the limestone cave of Liang Bua ('Cold Cave') in west Flores by a joint Indonesian--Australian team from the Indonesian Centre of Archaeological Research and the University of New England, under the coordination of Prof. Soejono and Dr. Morwood. The former is a senior Indonesian prehistorical archaeologist and the latter is an Australian expert of prehistoric cave paintings. The fossils (subfossils) were studied directly by Australian physical anthropologist Dr. Brown and indirectly by English palaeoanthropologist Dr. Stringer, from data sent by Brown.

Their conclusion from one studied specimen is to propose a new species, "Homo floresiensis", which had close affinities with Homo habilis of 3--4Ma (mega-annum, millions of years) which lived in East Africa. In the proposed evolutionary tree, "H. floresiensis" is the direct descendant of H. habilis and underwent evolutionary insular dwarfing, hence its small head, half the size of the chimpanzee brain, and small stature of 1 metre. It is capable of making stone tools in the form of flakes and blades. There are several designations for its antiquity (13Ka, 18Ka, 36Ka, and 95Ka; Ka=kilo-annum, thousands of years), obtained by several dating methods. A lot of experts doubt the reliability of the OSL method.

Therefore it is no surprise that palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists, anatomists, anthropologists and Quarternary geologists were shocked. Creationists, those who were against the theory of evolution and holding on to their literal interpretation of the Bible (Protestant creationists) and the Quran (Islamic creationists) used the opportunity to launch an attack to the evolutionists, whom they consider to interpret the finding by their own whim.

The emerging scepticism is not without reason. There are seven skeletons discovered (probably more, since there are other unprepared bones in the matrix), but the discoverers had only studied one of them to make their conclusions. The LB1 skeleton was designated as the holotype, the hypodigm over which the paradigm stands. Why was it compared against H. habilis specimens that is so far separated from it in time and space? Why not compare it with other findings from Liang Toge, Liang Momer, or Liang Panas (other cave sites in Flores)? Is evolution reversible: can the brain get smaller, and then larger again?




Does the similarities with Homo erectus imply a close affinity with the mentioned species? Is it not a case of microencephaly (small brain) causing the forehead to be not filled? The pentagonal shape of the skull implies a small cerebellum; is this not caused by an underdevelopment of the cerebral skin and cerebellar parts?

Is micrognathy (reduction of jaw) not the cause of the unreduced dentition and the unprotruding lower part of the mandible? The dentition clearly shows that the specimen belongs to Homo sapiens, with features such as agenesis (unrooted), rotation and close-packing of the teeth, whilst archaic features are not shown.

The Laboratory of Bio- and Palaeoanthropology at Universitas Gajah Mada has worked together with the Indonesian Centre of Archaeological Research since the 1960s. Palaeoanthropological materials were usually sent to Yogyakarta and archaeological finds sent to Jakarta. The cooperation went well all the time without any disturbance. Later a radiometry laboratory was built in Bandung. Skeletons from archaeological digs sent to Yogyakarta comes from all over the islands, from Sumatera to Irian.

The Yogyakarta lab focuses on Middle Pleistocene human fossils although there are some older and younger material. We kept almost a third of all H. erectus fossils in the world, and many people earned their degrees studying them here. However, not many Indonesians are interested because this field is outcompeted by faster tracks to materialistic success.

Researchers from the Yogyakarta lab has not actually been involved with the Liang Bua excavation. The author had once done some research on fossil humans from Flores caves stored in the Netherlands, which are the discoveries of Pater Verhoeven at the 1950s, and colleagues from the Yogyakarta lab once studied specimens from Liang Bua, excavated by Dr. Soejono from 1978 to 1989. The involvement of the Yogya lab with the 2003--2004 Liang Bua discoveries began when before Ramadan of 1424 H Prof Soejono asked for the team to study the LB1 skull. I was ill and bedridden at that time, but from the photo shown the skull appeared like an infrahuman primate; however it was still partly encased in its matrix and not photographed by anthropological standards. In July this year, Prof Soejono approached us again, asking to collect the discoveries, and the head of the Centre of Archaeological Research would provide funds for transport. I agree that younger and hard-won researchers should get the opportunity to study the new findings, instead of leaving it to foreign researchers.

There is some irony when an Australian expert, whom Prof. Soejono had only known for several years, asked him whether the author, whom Prof. Soejono had known for 40 years, is can be trusted. That chap needs to look into the mirror because the Yogya lab has been deceived three times.

Australian journalists report that the Australian researchers were unhappy with the fossils being taken to Yogyakarta. Their counterparts also dislike the idea of the study being based in Yogyakarta. Foreign journalists, especially Australian, were informed, and I was barraged by cynical, naïve, and conspiracy-accusing questions concerning the acquisition of the bones: whether it will be returned, will it be worth studying, would other people be allowed to see it, whether I was the only person disagreeing with its designation as a new species, why it is not studied in Jakarta, whether this is a turf war between scientists, and others. It should be noted that there are also many knowledgeable and objective people among the foreign journalists.

Some of the questions show their shallow understanding of the field. Some does not understand the difference between archaeology and palaeoanthropology. Others thought that palaeoanthropological studies do not need supporting material as facilities for reconstruction and comparative material such as ape and modern human skeletons, fossils, relevant literature, and others.

Threats and intimdation, even bribery and pressure will not make our Yogyakarta team budge. Research funding does not entitle that the donors may put their noses into the internal affairs of a country. There is no 'deputy sheriff' of archaeology for South East Asia that can push people around. I know that archaeological digs are prohibited in Australia because the native Australians consider their ancestors' graves as sacred, and many early findings had been reburied (I once was asked for help concerning this matter), therefore Australian archaeologists (which is continually produced) are forced to wander off to South East Asia (which is rich in ancient artefacts) and the south Pacific; so the turf war, if there is any such thing, is actually a turf conquest by latter-day conquistadors.

If not for the long-term good relationship with the Centre of Archaeological Research, the Yogya team is content with our H. erectus fossil collection. Many foreign students had studied at the Yogya laboratorium before; therefore the accusation that our collection is off-limits is very upsetting.

Since the fossils are now being studied it is obvious that it cannot be anywhere else; it should not be passed around. The loan is for research purposes and I respects the terms, which also specifies that it cannot be displayed at will. Important fossils are not normally shown off to every passing tourist; even research postgraduate students need recommendation from their professors to gain access. Important collections need curators that know how to take care of fossils and who should be allowed to study them. Those foreign journalists might want to try and ask if they can see and get their hands on human fossils stored in Western institutions.

To get a balanced view, we should not just read Australian papers but inquire other sources. I received many phone calls, facsimiles, e-mails from around the world, including some from Australia which agrees with my opinion.

There is one Australian who wanted to force us to return all archaeological human remains back to the Centre for Archaeological Research. These are quite a large lot, because it would include collections dating back to 1963. and they took a lot of space. See how he tries to pressurize us, claiming that he would get the Australian government involved.

About the Liang Bua bones, our preliminary conclusions are as follows. Maybe two of them were actual insular dwarfs, as the dwarf Stegodon timorensis. At least one suffers from primary microcephaly, with microcrany, microencephaly, and micrognathy, which caused mental retardation, a disruption in brain growth especially on the forehead and cerebellum, giving a passing resemblance to H. erectus and H. ergaster skulls.

The cranial capacity seems to be larger than what had been announced; we also obtained a larger height estimate than 106cm. I presume the Liang Bua fossils are related to the Liang Toge skull, which was considered a proto-Negrito by Verhoeven (although I do not agree with Verhoeven's designation).

Establishing a new taxon is not easy. New species must be proposed on the basis that it is a different morphological and biological complex from other taxa, therefore implying reproductive isolation. Paleopathology remains an open option; other factors such as geochronology, archaeostratigraphy, and palaeodemography should also be considered.

In closing, do not consider the discovery of the dwarf Flores man as irrelevant. There are microcephalic fossils from thousands and hundreds of years ago discovered in Europe and South America.

The whole story of the Liang Bua findings had been blown out of proportion, creating a storm in a teacup. Prof. Tjia from Kuala Lumpur sent me a fax that said:

I (and Mrs.) support Pak Jacob's actions. At least it will keep some of the "cultural adventurers" comments in check. Many among them are just eager to make "surprises"--whether correct or not--and they often consider local experts as incapable... Our people should be in control of the material...,"

Kompas in November quoted Prof. Moendarjito, Prof. Sedyawati, and Drs Arief Rahman the head of UNESCO Indonesia, as being concerned that the Flores findings will be transported to Australia.

Teuku Jacob. Professor Emeritus of Palaeoanthtropology, Universitas Gajah Mada, Yogyakarta.