Professor who unearthed the real Hobbit




27-10-1950 - 23-7-2013

In 2003, deep in a cavern that was deep in a jungle that was deep on a remote Indonesian island, Professor Mike Morwood, leading a joint Australian-Indonesian archaeological expedition, discovered the Hobbit.

One of the group, E. Wahyu Saptomo, scraped clay away from a tiny skull, so old and buried so long that it was like a wet paper towel, and assumed it was that of a child. Back in the laboratory, however, tests showed that this and its attendant bones came instead from a tiny but fully grown person, of a species now known as Homo floresiensis (after that island, Flores) but quickly dubbed "the Hobbit" by the media.

Among other things, it showed Morwood had been right in following a hunch derived from his reading of the early work of Eugene Dubois (discoverer of Java Man). Morwood then started to excavate sites with potential for information on Homo erectus, part of the evolutionary trail to Homo sapiens.

Along with more bones, the cavern, known locally Liang Bua, also held stone tools that were similar to others found around the world in Homo erectus sites - the important difference was that the Flores tools were tiny, the right size for people about a metre tall with a brain about the size of a grapefruit.

Liang Bua was known to have been used by early humans for about 800,000 years (established by Morwood earlier in his career), but the skull was found in a layer of sediment dating back only about 18,000 years. This has implications for the varying theories of the evolution of human beings and whether they all came out of Africa. The continued study of Homo floresiensis has included palaeoanthropological, morphological and pathological analysis, dentition study, ancient DNA extraction and tomographical techniques.

It is hoped that excavations at Mata Menge, Flores, will provide greater evidence on the early hominin colonisation of the Indonesian area. Interest in the finds has sparked many documentaries and written works.

The public announcement, in 2004, of the discovery of the Hobbit propelled Morwood into the international spotlight and allowed him to form contacts with many renowned institutes, including the Smithsonian Institute, which is continuing the Liang Bua excavations. The news went all around the world and history books were rewritten.

Fairfax reported it as, "Found - the newest members of the human family" and said: "The archaic humans co-existed for tens of thousands of years with our own species and might have died out only 500 years ago. Archaeologist and team member Mike Morwood, from the University of New England, said they were about the size of a modern three-year-old.

"'They weighed around 25 kilograms and had a brain smaller than most chimpanzees,' Professor Morwood said. 'Even so, they used fire and made sophisticated stone tools. Despite tiny brains, these little humans almost certainly had language.'

"The discovery of the species ... is being hailed as one of the most important in a century in the study of human origins. Until now, it had been thought our only recent cousins were the Neanderthals in Europe, who died out about 30,000 years ago ... Named Homo floresiensis, it is the smallest species of human ever found. It is the first that overlapped recently with our species to have been discovered since Neanderthal remains were found in the 1800s ...

"Professor Morwood said the little people were thought to have evolved from larger archaic humans, Homo erectus, who managed to sail across to Flores from Java about 800,000 years ago.

"They evolved into dwarfs, like the elephants on the island, because small creatures had a better chance of survival on a remote island where there was little food and no major predators."

Michael John Morwood was born in Auckland on October 27, 1950, and took bachelor's and master's degrees in archaeology at the University of Auckland and won the anthropology prize. In 1976, he moved to Australia, where he took a PhD at ANU with a dissertation on "Art and stone: towards a prehistory of central-western Queensland".

He began his career as an archaeologist working in Queensland, eventually becoming an authority on Aboriginal rock art. He began his research on a small scale, excavating sites in south-eastern Queensland between academic commitments, and gradually expanded his research northward through central and northern Queensland during the 1980s, taking his students with him for invaluable training in archaeological fieldwork. In 1981, he moved to the University of New England.

In 1989, Morwood was awarded a large Australian Research Council grant, allowing him to focus on a detailed study of the Quinkan rock art (named for the mythical Quinkan creatures that appear throughout the art) at Laura on Cape York. He established a 39,000-year regional sequence of Aboriginal occupation in this part of Australia for the first time and laid claim to its having the oldest known edge-ground artefact technology in the world.

Morwood's next interest was in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, aroused by the late Grahame Walsh, who was surveying the Bradshaw paintings there but had no idea of their age. In 1993, Morwood received another research council grant to investigate sites in the area. He carried out the first excavations in the north-western Kimberley, establishing that Aboriginal occupation there was at least 28,000 years old. He then thought, revolutionary at the time, of carbon-dating the mud wasp nests overlying the paintings, which returned a minimum age of 17,600 years.

Then, in 1992, the Mabo decision was handed down, bringing native title into law and creating some uncertainty among landowners. It stopped the Bradshaw research, so Morwood turned his thoughts to other projects over coastal land owned by the Kimberley traditional owners and decided to investigate evidence for Macassan contact.

He started excavating "trepang" (sea cucumber) sites in the area. Muslim Macassar trepangers from Sulawesi traded with indigenous Australians from about 1720, the first recorded example of interaction between the inhabitants of the Australian continent and their Asian neighbours.

During this research, an expedition by sea to the outerlying islands showed that, if the sea level were lowered by 100 metres, it provided a series of stepping-stones to Indonesia. Morwood had always been concerned that researchers were not investigating how and from where Aboriginal people had arrived in Australia and this suggested a possible route. If this was the case then there would be evidence of proto-Australians in Indonesia.

After preliminary investigations and establishing contacts within Indonesian government institutions, Morwood began excavations on the island of Flores that eventually lead him to the Hobbits.

In 2007, Morwood moved to the University of Wollongong, where he was a professor at the school of earth and environmental studies.

Morwood's innovations in field data recovery include the adaptation of shoring techniques found on industrial construction sites that are well suited for deep excavations. He also developed effective wet-sieving techniques that greatly improved finds recovery from excavated material. He was known for his use of an intelligent database design for recording excavated materials and the documentation of site contexts.

His legacy includes that he arranged Australian scholarships for Indonesian post-graduates, provided work for many others and brought new ideas and techniques to Indonesian archaeology. He particularly wanted his loyal Indonesian colleagues to be acknowledged for their parts in the discoveries, as without their skills and dedication it would have been impossible.

Morwood was still planning potential projects up to a week before his death from cancer and had recently bought property outside Jakarta, where he was developing a garden where he planned to "sniff the roses" in retirement.

In 2012, the Australian Archaeological Association awarded Morwood the Rhys Jones Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Australian Archaeology.

Mike Morwood is survived by his wife, Francelina, former wife Kathryn, a daughter and two grandchildren.

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