Profile: Prof. Mike Morwood
In a hole in the ground they found ...a Hobbit
This year marks the 10th anniversary of ex-UNE Professor Mike Morwood’s discovery of a tiny hominin skeleton on a tropical Indonesian island, which became known to the world as ‘The Hobbit’...
Not to be confused with Bilbo Baggins and the Shire-folk, this creature was a primitive human-like species displaying a unique mix of modern Homo and ancient Australopithecine features. UNE Paleoanthropologist Professor Peter Brown formally named the species Homo floresiensis, for its origin on the island of Flores, but at only one metre tall and with the contemporary popularity of the Tolkien franchises , the ‘Hobbit’ nickname has found a secure place in contemporary reference.
The north-eastern area of the small, central Indonesian island of Flores is riddled with limestone caves, carved out of the landscape by millions of years of erosion and geological uplift. In 2001 Mike Morwood lead a joint Indonesian-Australian team of archaeologists to one of these, a large cave known by the locals as Liang Bua, or ‘cool cave’. Surrounded by lush tropical rainforests and small villages on the slopes, and broad rice paddies on the flat flood-plains, this was a place rarely visited by foreigners.
What followed were years of careful excavations until one day, at the bottom of a dark hole six metres deep, one of the workers’ pickaxes unexpectedly sliced into a tiny skull that had the consistency of blotting paper. Two weeks of careful preservation work were undertaken by Indonesian archaeologists Rokus Awe Due and Thomas Sutikna before the bones could be handled and studied. Analysis of these first bones, as well as those of nine other individuals which were uncovered during further excavations - alongside thousands of stone tools - revealed them to be those of a previously unknown species of small, primitive human-like creatures, which would have lived on the island around 12-80 thousand years ago alongside such bizarre creatures as pygmy elephants, giant rats, 1.8 m tall stalks and Komodo dragons. Though some experts initially claimed these could be the bones of deformed modern humans, the constantly growing body of scientific analysis now suggests that this is considerably unlikely.
Professor Mike Morwood, then a lecturer at the University of New England, was one of the archaeologists at the head of this expedition. Now at the University of Wollongong, he still maintains close ties with our university and is currently heading an archaeological project in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia with UNE archaeologists Associate Professor June Ross and Doctor Mark Moore, as well as his continued work in Indonesia. A perfect example of the clichéd ‘eccentric elderly professor’ with a grey beard and often unkept hair, and a habit of turning up when you least expect him, Mike has always encouraged enthusiasm for archaeology in the next generation of archaeologists and a number of UNE students (including the author) have been involved in his projects, getting the opportunity to work on exotic and inspiring dig sites around the world. At the annual Association of Australian Archaeology conference in December 2012, the largest archaeological gathering in the country, he was award the top honour of the ‘Rhys Jones Medal’ in recognition of his outstanding contributions to archaeology. A cast of the primary H. floresiensis skeleton was on display at the Australian Museum in Sydney last year, on loan from the University of Wollongong, while the UNE Dixson library already hosts its own ‘Hobbit’ exhibit including a life-sized reconstruction of this tiny creature (on the ground floor). Archaeologists hope that the excavations in Indonesia may reveal more H. floresiensis bones, which so far have only been found in Liang Bua; or perhaps the remains of other currently unknown species of early hominins.
It’s an exciting time to be doing archaeology in Southeast Asia! - Yinika Perston