November 30, 2004

The Battle for the Hobbit: Professor Stuns World of Science By Locking It Up

SHE MAY have only been a midget but her bones have generated a huge row in the world of human palaeontology, already reeling from the dramatic implications of her discovery.

All the experts who have studied her tiny skull and skeleton believe the "hobbit woman" found on a remote Indonesian island represents a new human species that only died out in recent history. However, a maverick scientist disputes this interpretation, saying she was just another member of our own species but with a congenital dwarfism disease.

Now, Professor Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia has taken the matter into his own hands by locking her remains away in his personal vaults, making it difficult for other scientists to gain access.

Anthropologists fear that scientists outside Indonesia could be prevented from studying the remains of what they are convinced is a dwarf species of human, named Homo floresiensis after the island of Flores where it lived until at least 11,000BC.

Professor Jacob insists the remains are those of an anatomically modern human - Homo sapiens - with a congenital disease, and he has angered fellow anthropologists by requisitioning the remains of Flores woman for his research purposes. Under a private agreement with a fellow anthropologist, but without the apparent permission or knowledge of senior archaeologists in Indonesia, Professor Jacob has locked the bones away in his private vaults at his university in Yogyakarta.

Australian and Indonesian scientists last month revealed a new species of dwarf human who grew about 3ft tall and lived 13,000 years ago. It was described as one of the most significant finds in human palaeontology since the first Neanderthal skull was found 150 years ago.

However, Professor Jacob then threw cold water on the claims by arguing that the grapefruit-sized skull belonged to an anatomically modern human suffering from microcephaly, a deformity characterised by a small brain. "Everything points to the direction of Homo sapiens, especially the teeth. The teeth in the upper and lower jaw are clearly sapiens," Professor Jacob said at the time.

However, most other experts in the field dismissed his suggestion, including Professor Richard Roberts of the University of Wollongong in Australia who was a senior member of the team that made the discovery. "Professor Jacob's assertion that the remains are just a scaled-down version of Homo sapiens is incorrect. There are a plethora of anatomical features that argue against this conclusion," Professor Roberts said.

It is understood that Professor Jacob took possession of the bones under the terms of a private agreement with a long-time colleague, Professor Radien Soejono of Indonesia's Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, who was also a member of the team who made the discovery and analysed the bones. However, according to one scientist close to the dispute, the bones were handed over without the knowledge or permission of the centre's director, Tony Djubiantono, or other senior members of his staff. "They are extremely angry about this and are demanding that the material be returned as soon as possible or they will be making formal complaints at ministerial level," the scientist said.

Professor Roberts said that Professor Jacob may feel disgruntled about the fact that other scientists outside Indonesia have had early access to the remains and so were able to describe them formally in the journal Nature. "There's a touch of sour grapes I suspect," he said.