I remember when I first learned about the crazy, contentious new species of human relative Homo floresiensis. I was a little late—when the little “hobbit” was announced in 2004 I was only in high school, just barely beginning to understand the discipline of anthropology. Luckily, the discussions about the hobbit didn’t end then; the highly publicized debate only seemed to get louder as the years passed. The debate reached a fever pitch around 2007, when I was an undergraduate anthropology major, beginning to realize my interests centered on the field of paleoanthropology.
A steady stream of papers emerged after the original publications, as researchers from Indonesia to Australia, Europe, and the United States weighed on the major question: was the hobbit something never-before-seen, or was it simply a diseased modern human? One big moment in the publication downpour was a special issue of the Journal of Human Evolution that appeared in 2007. This issue examined—for the first time ever—the post-crania of the hobbit, the skeleton beyond the skull. It shed light on the hobbit’s giant feet and fascinating shoulder, complimenting shocking new findings on the creature’s primitive wrist configuration. These papers seemingly cemented the hobbit’s status as stranger than fiction—and this is the moment I remember.
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As I followed the hobbit debates, one thing in particular stuck out to me (perhaps strangely): the cave in which the bones were found. The iconic, limestone cave located on an oceanic Indonesian island was often pictured alongside photos of the strange skull, its giant ceilings with chandelier-like stalactites were like nothing I had ever seen before. The site was called Liang Bua, meaning “cool cave” in the local language, and I just had to get there.
It’s no surprise, then, that I jumped at the chance to include Homo floresiensis in my dissertation research. Having shifted from paleoanthropology itself to the history of it, my work now examines historically surprising and controversial human ancestors, after all—and what could be more surprising or controversial than the little hobbit I had long seen splashed across journal covers and in NOVA documentaries? Not only would I get a chance to study the story of a fossil that had captivated me, but maybe, just maybe, I’d get to visit the cave.
To write a history, is it truly necessary to travel directly to the place you’re writing about? A historian is no geologist who needs to see the stratigraphy in person or collect soil samples—but in the case of Liang Bua the circumstances provided me with particularly good reasons to make the trek halfway around the world. Email is not the cultural norm in many parts of Indonesia, so in order to communicate with the people who were physically standing in the cave during much of my story—and record their perspectives—I needed to go to Indonesia in person. Fortunately, the team was still working in the very same cave, so I went straight to Liang Bua to meet them there.
When I first set foot in the cave in the spring of 2017, ten years after reading the special issue in JHE, it seemed to me more magical than any photograph could capture. And during my first weeks in the cave, something interesting happened. I realized I had missed something in all those documentaries and reading the scientific paper: the people. The full cast of characters who were involved.
Once I was physically standing in Liang Bua, the people began to come into focus (as I would hope, given that they were standing right in front of me). A group more diverse than team leaders and talented science communicators who had appeared in the press and led the publications, but instead an entire team (and indeed, the work at Liang Bua is truly a team effort in unparalleled ways). Right in front of me was a group of people who had found the hobbit and shaped its story—and many of their voices had never been recorded discussing their stories.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that I was struck by the people—I am a historian of science, after all. My job is to focus on people, to place them in the story, to put back the details that get dropped in the scientific publications. But at Liang Bua, I realized that there was so much going on around this single discovery; deep cultural, local, and political histories were intertwined around these bones. These were stories worth telling.
As is so often the case, visiting a place has the power to change everything.
This long, windy story is an attempt to explain why I just embarked on my latest endeavor: a year in Indonesia. Last week, I landed in the capital city of Jakarta to begin a year-long Fulbright research grant that aims to understand the development of anthropology in Indonesia by viewing it through the lens of this beautiful cave—and the people who have worked there.
In the next year, then, I have a (roughly) three-part plan to put myself in a better position to tell the story of Homo floresiensis within the larger contexts of the history of anthropology in Indonesia and the history of paleoanthropology. There are many other facets in the works, but below is the outline.
My first task is to get a better grasp of the language, Bahasa Indonesia. I have been studying on my own for over a year now, and I have picked up bits and pieces from my now two visits to Liang Bua. But thanks to a language enhancement grant in conjunction with my Fulbright, I will enroll at a language school for 3 months of immersion.
This is vital to a history of the hobbit because much of what happens at Liang Bua happens—and has happened—in the Indonesian language. Field notes are recorded in Indonesian, much of the planning and coordinating done in Indonesian—and importantly for a historian: many of the conversations happen in Indonesian. Indeed, some of the major players in the hobbit’s story speak primarily Indonesian and their local language (Manggarai), therefore to record their perspectives I need to be able to better communicate with the team.
My next task is to try to better understand anthropology in Indonesia more generally. I will thus live in the capital city of Jakarta for a few months this spring, trying to absorb as much as I can about the history of the excavations. I will be based at the research center that coordinates the digs (Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional), where many of the specimens (including the hobbit) are housed. I will be asking questions of the researchers located there who lead the Liang Bua team and I will hopefully be spending time pouring over any documents or field notes (archives) that exist in Liang Bua’s long history (which stretches over half a century)!
The final step is to go back to Liang Bua for the field season. Some of the excavators who work at Liang Bua, as I’ve written about previously, have been at the beautiful site for decades. They live in surrounding villages and it is only here that I can collect the perspectives, through their oral histories. Many have kindly given me their time already, but armed with a better understanding of the language, I hope to dig deeper into their stories.
There are many others of the team at Liang Bua whose perspectives shed light on the hobbit’s history. In addition to the team of local excavators, the same three archaeologists from Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional have been coordinating digs at the site since the hobbit days: the impressive trio of Thomas Sutikna, Jatmiko, and Wayhu Saptomo. Additionally, one of the original team leaders, geologist Richard Roberts, still conducts research there almost 20 years on.
While some of the people and practices have remained the same since the hobbit’s discovery, the work at Liang Bua is constantly evolving—and I am also fortunate to learn from those who have joined the excavations in the years since the hobbit was first uncovered. I get to watch science in action if you will, making the story live and breathe in a way that otherwise might not be possible.
Through a mixture of language immersion, archival research, oral history interviews, and even a little participant observation, I hope to weave a story that is as fascinating and multifaceted as the people excavating at Liang Bua. In addition to this formal research, having the opportunity to spend the year immersed in this culture will certainly shape my perspective. This history is about Indonesia after all. I therefore look forward to talking to many people about a diverse range of topics, eating fried bananas on street corners, and learning to better understand a culture so wonderfully different from my own.
I don’t always know what my research will look like. Anyone who has conducted work like this appreciates that flexibility is critical. I imagine some of my plans won’t pan out, while other opportunities I can hardly fathom might present themselves. What I do know is that I will ask a lot of questions and I will record everything. The sounds, the smells, the smiles—all of it. And I aim to communicate it all with you.
The stories I record here in Indonesia will have value beyond just this one site on this one island in the Indian Ocean, I hope. Among other themes, I aim to raise questions about what gets written down during the scientific process—and what doesn’t. Which perspectives are recorded, and which aren’t. And how these things shape our understandings of science.
The site of Liang Bua hasn’t lost its shine for me, even after spending the better part of two field seasons there. Not a single day have I walked into the cave without a feeling of awe and disbelief. With every centimeter excavated, every cup of coffee sipped, and every laugh shared, the cave appears richer to me. I look forward to telling the stories of those who have made history within those limestone walls.
Stay tuned from updates throughout the year—and thanks for hanging in there on this post, folks. I look forward to getting back to regularly scheduled blog-programming soon. Less about me and more about science and history!