Life

Sutikna traces man's ancestry
through Liang Bua find


Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

If Thomas Sutikna had departed the archeological site at Liang Bua, West Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, earlier than scheduled, he may have regretted it for the rest of his life.

For Thomas, an archeologist who had been working on Flores Island with an exploration team since 2001, the remaining two weeks of the project was more than enough to pack his bags and prepare to leave.

Fortunately, Thomas was the field coordinator of the team, which meant he had to stay and continue the excavation with others of the team until the final day.

""When we discovered (Flores Man), we were just about to wrap up the dig,"" Thomas said during a recent teleconference with journalists facilitated by National Geographic Channel Asia.

By that time, he said, Australian researchers and Indonesian archeologist Soejono -- the head researchers -- had left for home the day the fossils were uncovered in September 2004.

It was fellow archeologist Wahyu Saptomo who first uncovered the fossil, which was so fragile that the discovery team had to allow them to harden for days before handling them.

Given the smallness of its structure, at first the archeologists assumed the fossil was the fossilized bones of a child. To Thomas' surprise, a quick study of its dental structure revealed that the tiny bones was that of an adult.

""We knew it was an important discovery, but we had no idea it would provoke discourse and open new chapters of knowledge in archeology,"" he said.

The fossils were discovered at a depth of 5.9 meters, and were the bones of an adult of a hitherto unknown species of humans that had lived alongside Homo sapiens.

The average height of a full-grown adult of the species is approximately one meter tall and lived about 18,000 years ago.

Because of its small stature, the archeologists nicknamed it ""the Hobbit"" after the man-like creatures in the Lord of the Rings.

Some archeologists predicted the Flores Man, Homo floresiensis, was a species of Homo erectus -- which lived on Java 1.6 million years ago -- that had evolved into dwarfs in adaptation with their surroundings.

This notion has some proof with the finding of dwarf elephants, the Stegodon -- an elephant the size of a pony.

Thomas added that the Homo floresiensis and Stegodon fossil findings in a single cave at Liang Bua seemed to indicate the possibility that the Flores Man had brought the Stegodon home from a hunt.

The finding has raised some debate among archeologists. For example, what is surprising is how the species reached Flores, which is separated from mainland Java by open water. Building a craft for traveling over water is thought to be beyond the intellectual capacity of the older Homo erectus.

The excavation carried out by Thomas and his team was a continuation of similar research conducted by Theodor Verhoeven in the 1960s and Soejono from 1978 to 1989 at the same Liang Bua site. Verhoeven was a pastor and part-time archeologist, and once found an artifact in the area, where a seminary compound had stood.

Archeologists favored Liang Bua, one of several limestone caves on Flores, because the geologic layers extended over a long period of time.

The research team from Australia's University of New England consists of Mike Morwood, associate professor of archeology at the University of New England, Peter Brown, Soejono, Thomas and Wahyu, along with 35 assistants recruited from the local community.

Thomas said his team would resume excavation in June and hoped to uncover more findings.

The discovery of Homo floresiensis and modern humans' ancestral lineage is featured in the first issue of National Geographic Indonesia.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.