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Fate of Flores Bones in Question
23 November 2004 (All day)
A leading Indonesian paleoanthropologist who doubts that a recently discovered, tiny 18,000-year-old hominid is really a new species has taken the matter into his own hands. Earlier this month he took possession of the skeleton, and he plans to acquire other hominid bones from the same excavation. The move worries many researchers, who fear it will limit access to the valuable remains.
The original discovery stunned paleoanthropologists: A research team last month announced that it had found the bones of a new species of human in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores (ScienceNOW, 27 October). The discovery of meter-tall humans suggested that until relatively recently, Homo sapiens was not the only human species on the planet. But a small group of skeptics argued that the skeleton belonged to a modern human afflicted with microcephaly, a deformity characterized by a very small brain and head ( Science, 12 November, p. 1116).
Earlier this month, one of the skeptics, Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, had the skull of the hominid--dubbed Homo floresiensis by the Indonesian-Australian team that discovered it--transferred to his own laboratory from its official depository at the Center for Archaeology in Jakarta. Center officials have agreed to Jacob's request to have the skeleton's remaining bones, as well as the fragmentary remains of several other tiny hominids unearthed during this year's season, transported to Gadjah Mada as well, according to Radien Soejono, the center's senior archaeologist and co-leader of the discovery team.
Some researchers are worried that Jacob will prevent others from studying the bones; he is well known for guarding access to fossils in his possession (Science, 6 March 1998, p. 1482). "This development seems to threaten all future studies of Homo floresiensis," says Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Stringer's concerns are echoed by a number of other researchers. "We are very unhappy," said one Indonesian archaeologist, who asked not to be identified. Paleoanthropologist Peter Brown of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, who originally analyzed the skeleton, says, "I doubt that the material will ever be studied again."
Soejono expects Jacob to return all of the bones to Jakarta eventually, although he's not sure when. "I am not going to push" for their return, Soejono says, adding that Jacob is a "very experienced" scientist.
Jacob told Science he will probably need until the end of this year to complete his study. He says that it is up to the Center for Archaeology to decide the bones' ultimate fate but adds that the remains would be "much safer" in his own vaults in Yogyakarta, where many of Indonesia's famous hominid fossils are also stored.