A Bone to Pick in Indonesia

From: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-flores15jun15,0,2747132.story?coll=la-home-headlines

# Discovery of remains in a cave that may be of a previously unknown species of tiny human has set off a full-sized row among scientists.

By Richard C. Paddock, Times Staff Writer

KAMPUNG TERAS, Indonesia — The bones in the limestone cave had been buried more than 12,000 years when the archeologists found them. The villagers say they belonged to sinners who drowned in the biblical Great Flood.

"The people in the cave were condemned by God years ago," said Stanislaus Barus, 60, his lips stained red from chewing betel nut. "They had lots of sins, according to the Old Testament. It rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and the condemned people took refuge in the cave."

The Indonesian and Australian archeologists who began unearthing the remains in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores two years ago have come to a more scientific, if no less sensational, conclusion: They say the bones belong to a tiny, previously unknown species of human.

The little people stood 3 foot 3 and had a brain the size of a grapefruit, the archeologists say. Making sophisticated stone tools, they hunted pygmy elephants, giant rats and Komodo dragons. They used fire to cook and almost certainly had a spoken language. The archeologists named them Homo floresiensis, or Flores Man.

Based on the discovery of stone tools elsewhere on Flores, scientists believe the species' ancestors landed on the island east of Bali more than 800,000 years ago and survived there long after modern humans arrived in the region. Most likely they built rafts to reach Flores, which would make them the earliest known sailors. A volcanic eruption may have caused their extinction around 10,000 BC.

In the search for human origins, some experts call this one of the most important finds of the last century. The discovery challenges the conventional view of human evolution, particularly the belief that having a big brain is an essential part of being human. According to the discovery team, these little people carried out complex tasks with brains smaller than a chimpanzee's.

Not everyone has welcomed the discovery.

In Indonesia, the October announcement of Flores Man in the respected British journal Nature ignited controversy within the scientific community and sparked jealousy among experts who were not part of the excavation. The discovery was front-page news around the world.

Teuku Jacob, Indonesia's preeminent paleoanthropologist, accused the Australians of stealing the limelight from Indonesian archeologists by holding their own news conference, and he challenged the conclusion that the bones represented a separate species.

"They are all modern man," declared Jacob, a professor of physical anthropology at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta on the island of Java.

In his quest to disprove the findings, Jacob persuaded an Indonesian member of the team to lend him the priceless bones. For months he refused to give them back, then returned some of them broken, including a smashed pelvis. Members of the excavation team have called his behavior unethical.

Now controversy over the bones has derailed further excavation at Liang Bua. The quarrel has prompted the influential Indonesian Institute of Sciences to prohibit digging in the cave, which had been planned for this year and might have produced new evidence in the scientific debate.

"We should stop excavation there for a while, to avoid the dispute getting worse," said professor Umar Jenie, chairman of the institute, which has authority over foreign research in the country. "If we don't have a cooling-down period, I worry that relationships between Indonesian and Australian scientists will deteriorate."

The tranquil village of Kampung Teras in the mountains of western Flores seems an unlikely center of international controversy.

The village has no electricity, running water or sanitation system. The 400 inhabitants, all of them Christian and most of them rice farmers, live in small wooden shacks with dirt floors. They cook their meals over open fires and wash in the river that runs through the village. No one owns a car. When they leave the village, they travel in a converted truck, usually so crowded that passengers ride on the roof.

During the recent excavation, more than 30 villagers got jobs digging with small shovels and hauling dirt from the cave. They earned less than $3 a day.

Large vines droop near the cave's entrance, which has grown wider over the millenniums as the hillside above has eroded. Inside, broken stalactites hang from the ceiling, which in some places is more than 60 feet high.

Over the last 50 years, Indonesian and Dutch archeologists found the remains of modern Homo sapiens in the top layers of the cave floor. But it was not until excavations in 2003 and 2004 that the Indonesian-Australian team dug deeper and found the bones they identified as Flores Man.