The discovery of hominin fossils fascinates me. The moment a bone is exposed, freed from its sedimentary tomb for the first time in thousands–or even millions of years–is a special moment. In the history of paleoanthropology, these moments–particularly the who, where, what, and why of these moments, vary considerably. Sometimes, a primitive face is exposed after a blasting of limestone rock, other times an organized dig carefully reveals the fossil treasures. No matter how the discovery occurs there are always fascinating moments.
The discovery of Homo floresiensis is no exception. The strangely small, human-looking skeleton of LB1 (for more on LB1 see this post) was unearthed during an archaeological excavation searching for evidence of modern humans’ migration into Australia. Unexpected, remarkable, and thoroughly bizarre, the small skeleton that has come to be known as “the hobbit” has made a big impact on paleoanthropology, and its day of discovery deserves some attention.
Setting the Scene. September 2, 2003. In a cave called Liang Bua, which rests on a terrace in a valley cut by the river called the Wae Racang on the Indonesian island of Flores. Team leader, Mike Morwood, described the cave as “cathedral-like” because of its high roof and “great chandeliers and cones of stalactites” suspended from the ceiling. The field season was winding down, and Morwood had already left the island. Here are a few interesting aspects about that day:
Sections of the excavation pits were collapsing. In fact, the only reason the team was excavating the pit in which they found LB1 is because a different section had been terminated early–after large cracks had formed in the pit and it collapsed. In early August they had turned to a two-by-two meter section on the east wall of the cave called Sector VII.
The skull was uncovered by a local worker, hired to help with the excavation. Benyamin Tarus had been digging through thick, sticky, brown clay about six meters deep in Sector VII when his towel hit something unusual.
The left eye orbit was swiped off in discovery.With one scrape of his towel, Tarus both uncovered the skull and sliced off the left brow ridge. He then alerted others to his discovery and they carefully proceeded to remove the clay. It ultimately took three days of work to get the chunck of earth containing the hobbit out of the ground and to the local lab space.
The bones were crazy soft. The skull, along with additional parts of the skeleton the team uncovered, had to be left in the pit for a couple of days to dry out. Meanwhile, the team scoured the island for nail polish remover to coat and harden the bones! Paleoanthropologist Peter Brown, who flew in weeks later to examine the bones, described the bones’ condition by saying “if you’d stepped on them you would have ended up with a pile of mashed potato.”
Over the next few months, the bones were cleaned, studied, and published as a new species of Homo. These bones are incredibly interesting and I will surely write more about them as they are a focus of my dissertation. Morwood said it well when he wrote, “Homo floresiensis challenges us because she is so unexpected, because she does not fit with many preconceptions about humans evolved and behaved, and what they should look like.” This, Morwood argued, “has led to a sometimes bizarre series of twists and turns in Hobbit’s post-excavation history, all with astonishingly similar precedents in the history of paleoanthropology.” (Hint, I intend to explore those historical precedents!)
For more on the discovery, check out Mike Morwood’s fun book A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia.