In 2003, a single swipe of a spade rocked the field of paleoanthropology. During a routine excavation, digging through damp clay of a cave floor, that single swipe revealed an entirely unexpected creature. It was the small skull of a primitive-looking hominin, hypothesized to be a new species of human, Homo floresiensis.
This incident occurred six meters below ground, in a pit dug deep into the cave floor at Liang Bua, a large limestone cave on the oceanic island of Flores. The team of archaeologists working at Liang Bua had not been looking to find such a human and rewrite the textbook on human evolution; they were simply looking to answer questions about modern humans’ migration into Australia. Yet, as so often is the case in science, they made an unexpected discovery, overturning commonly held ideas about human evolution in the process.
But who wielded this spade on that fateful Tuesday afternoon in 2003? One fascinating aspect of this unexpected discovery is the backstory of the people who work there. Archaeological excavations have been ongoing in the Cool Cave (bua means cool, liang translates to cave) for decades. During that time, many people have come and gone, but some have remained, knitting and creating a truly unique history of the dig site.
Some of the ties to the site have roots deep enough that they cross generations and entangle entire families. One example is Ande Mali and his son Benyamin Tarus. Ande began working in the cave in the 1970s when Professor Raden Soejono was overseeing excavations. At this time, the team was just beginning to uncover the rich nature that is Liang Bua. From Neolithic pottery to Mesolithic burials, researchers had many artifacts to sort through and begin piece together the prehistory of Flores.
Each day, while Ande worked in the cave, his son Benyamin made the trek from their nearby village of Teras to bring his father lunch. While this is a somewhat common practice for villagers on Flores, it was quite daring in the case of Liang Bua. Back then, Benyamin remembers, many of the people in the village avoided the cave, as they believed it to be haunted by spirits.
Excavating at Liang Bua became a family affair when Benyamin transitioned from young-lunch-bringer to team-member in 2001. In the years that followed, Benyamin spent an incredible amount time in the excavation sections—more than most at the Cool Cave. As a result, he has learned the ins and outs of the complex sedimentary layers of Liang Bua like the back of his hand.
It seems fitting, then, that the man wielding the spade during that fateful swoop in 2003 was the same young boy who brought his father lunch so long ago, Benyamin Tarus. Given Benyamin’s long history at Liang Bua, it’s difficult to imagine a better-suited person to put the site on the international map. Benyamin is rightfully quite proud of the discovery–over ten years later, his eyes still sparkle whenever floresiensis is mentioned.
Fast-forward to 2018 and Benaymin continues to excavate in the cave, alongside Ande, who helps sift through the sticky, clayey sediment, looking for bones. Now, Benyamin’s children take turns bringing their father lunch each workday at Liang Bua. Could it be that thirty years from now the torch will be passed, and one of them might be the one yielding a spade in the next big discovery?