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A New Human
The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia
In the Footsteps of the Father
Getting a foothold in Indonesia was a daunting prospect. A different country, a different culture, a different language. One way to ease the process would be to get the assistance and advice of people with prior experience. So in 1995, having decided while in the Kimberley to try looking for the Asian origins of the First Australians, I wrote to people who were already doing archaeological research in the region. No reply. Time to jump in at the deep end; to go to Jakarta, the center of politics, power and wealth in Indonesia, to meet people and set up collaborate research projects.
Jakarta is hot, humid and chaotic: a sprawling capital of 10 million people mainly living in crowded residential areas, with intermittent clusters of high-rise buildings and all connected by traffic jams. Clutching an Indonesia Lonely Planet guidebook, I made my way to the National Research Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS) to meet "the father of archaeology in Indonesia," Professor Raden Pandji Soejono, then aged 66. Soejono, whose honorific title "Raden" means "Prince," is an aristocrat whose ancestors ruled the last great Hindu kingdom in Java, the Majapahit, in the 14th century. He is the son of a hero in the struggle for Indonesian independence, Raden Pandji Soeroso, who had become a cabinet minister in the Soekarno government. Soejono himself became famous when, as a young man during the Japanese occupation in World War II, he climbed a flagpole to rip down a Japanese flag, but was persuaded otherwise by a Japanesesoldier who took aim with a rifle but did not fire.
Until his retirement in 1987, Soejono was director of ARKENAS, and he still occupied two adjacent large offices in the building. Symbolically retaining the premiere parking space for his car right next to the front steps, he had a major influence on decisions and policies made by subsequent directors. A man of medium build, with distinguished gray hair combed back and thinning, Soejono wears well-cut suits, and is fluent in a number of languages including English and Dutch. Over his long career, he had excavated at sites in many parts of Indonesia, and had been president of the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association. He had the knowledge and contacts to get a cooperative project established. But although he was very polite and interested in my Australian research and ideas for future research in Indonesia, nothing quite jelled. I wasn't surprised. This had also been the experience of two archaeologist colleagues from the Australian National University, Rhys Jones and Alan Thorne, who had visited Indonesia many times, had many polite conversations with Soejono and even looked at sites in Timor. All to no avail. I later learned that one of the sites they had hoped to work at collaboratively was a large limestone cave in western Flores where Soejono had been working since 1978. Its name was Liang Bua.
My experience with Dr. Fachroel Aziz, a paleontologist with the Geological Research and Development Centre (GRDC) in Bandung, was very different. In fact, when I phoned him from Jakarta, he was immediately enthusiastic and wanted me to come straight there to examine some stone fragments, possibly stone artifacts, that he and some Dutch colleagues—Paul Sondaar, John de Vos and Gert van den Bergh—had excavated the previous year from Mata Menge, an open site in the Soa Basin of central Flores. The fragments had been found in the same sandstone layers as the fossilized remains of Stegodon, an extinct group of animals, related to mastodons, mammoths and elephants, and once common across Asia.
Aziz, from a humble background in northern Sumatra, was self-made, much more entrepreneurial and less formal than the aristocratic Soejono—and they did not get on. That was probably the main reason that Aziz did not seek the advice of ARKENAS archaeologists about the Mata Menge stones, but preferred to deal with a foreign archaeologist—a newcomer to Indonesia, who was politically naïve, had no prior affiliation with any Indonesian institution, and had not been mentored by Soejono. I went by train to Bandung the same day to take up Aziz's offer, and immediately set to work studying the stone pieces from Mata Menge laid out on the desk in his office.
Aziz and his colleagues were not the first to excavate at Mata Menge. The seminal work at the site had been done in 1963 by Father Theodor Verhoeven, a Catholic priest based in Flores and with a passion for archaeology, who had studied Pompeii for his master's degree in classical history at the University of Leiden. At Mata Menge and another nearby fossil site, Boa Lesa, he found stone artifacts, including flake tools, chopping tools, and hand axes, together with Stegodon remains in sandstone layers, sandwiched between thick layers of volcanic ash. Quite logically, Verhoeven concluded that early humans and Stegodon coexisted on Flores. But then he claimed something seemingly preposterous: because Stegodon and Homo erectus were known to have lived in Java about 750,000 years ago, he concluded that the stone tools at Mata Menge were of similar age, and that Homo erectus had somehow reached Flores.
Following further excavations in the Soa Basin with another priest, Father Johannes Maringer, in 1970 Verhoeven presented the evidence for his claims in a number of papers in the journal Anthropos. His evidence was ignored by the archaeological establishment because of doubts about his identification of stone artifacts, the possibility that any actual stone tools might have become mixed up with much older fossils, and the fact that no one knew when Stegodon had lived on Flores. Verhoeven also published his findings in German, which made it even easier for his detractors simply to ignore them.A New Human
The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia. Copyright © by Mike Morwood. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.