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Breaking the Hobbit
23 March 2005 (All day)
Yet another skirmish has erupted over the "hobbit," as researchers quarrel over who broke the bones of Homo floresiensis—a diminutive new species of human found on the Indonesian island of Flores last year.
Late last month the 18,000-year-old bones were returned to their official home, the Center for Archaeology in Jakarta, after being borrowed by Indonesia's most prominent paleoanthropologist Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta (Science, 4 March, p. 1386). Archaeologist Michael Morwood of the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale, Australia, leader of the team that discovered the bones, says the left side of the pelvis--which he calls one of the hominid's most distinctive features--was "smashed," perhaps during transport. He also notes that molds apparently taken of some of the bones caused breakage and loss of anatomic detail in the cranial base of the skull and jawbone. In addition, Morwood says that a second, still-unpublished jawbone "broke in half during the molding process and was badly glued back together, misaligned, and with significant loss of bone."
Jacob insists that the bones were intact when they left his lab, and that any damage must have occurred when they were no longer under his care. "We have photographs, taken on the last day, and [the bones are] not damaged," he told Science. Jacob, who says his lab is the only one in Indonesia set up for paleoanthropological analysis, says researchers made a mold and one cast of the skeleton, but that it was "impossible" for the procedure to have damaged the bones. He adds that his team reconstructed some of the remains, putting pieces together in order to study them, because this had not yet been done.
Paleopathologist Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide in Australia says the bones, including the left side of the pelvis, were intact when he viewed them in Yogyakarta on 17 February. He adds that "Professor Jacob's laboratory has decades of experience caring for fossils, and I would be surprised to learn that if they made a mold it would damage the bones," an opinion echoed by paleoanthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who visited Jacob in January.
"Wherever the damage to the pelvis occurred, the most important point is that it was too fragile to move in the first place," says paleoanthropologist Peter Brown, a colleague of Morwood's at UNE. "[It] should never have left Jakarta."