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Fossil finders in tug of war over analysis of hobbit bones

Famous Indonesian skeletons given back to original discovery team.

Jakarta

Small skull, big discovery: Homo floresiensis (left) represents a new branch of human evolution.

The prized bones of a miniature hominin have finally been returned to the scientists who discovered them, after months of dispute with a competing scientist who had taken them away.

The move is being seen as a victory by the discovery team. But some samples have yet to be given back. And a quarrel over whether the find really represents a new species continues to haunt the researchers.

“It is a complete circus,” says Peter Brown, an Australian palaeoanthropologist who co-led the Indonesian–Australian team that reported the discovery last autumn1,2.

The skeletal remains are those of Homo floresiensis, a metre-tall hominin species nicknamed ‘hobbit’, whose discovery revealed a new branch of the human evolutionary tree. The bones, found on the island of Flores, Indonesia, were dated to the unexpectedly recent time of just 18,000 years ago.

Within a month of the publication, one of Indonesia's top anthropologists, Teuku Jacob of Gajah Mada University, had taken the bones to his lab for analysis. These included the skeletal remains of eight individuals, some of which have yet to be described officially. Jacob was given access to the fossils by his friend and co-leader of the discovery team, archaeologist Radien Soejono of the Indonesian Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta.

The rest of the discovery team, also led by archaeologist Michael Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, was furious that Jacob had removed the remains.

Tensions built as Jacob began saying publicly that H. floresiensis was not a new human species. He contends that the bones are from Homo sapiens pygmies. The one dwarfed skull could be explained by a congenital defect, Jacob says. Many other leading palaeoanthropologists, including Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, and Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, disagree with Jacob's interpretation.

The dispute worsened when Jacob gave two other researchers access to the bones for a week in February. Morwood and Brown call the examination of samples about which they have not yet published “unethical”. But the researchers in question — Alan Thorne, a semi-retired anthropologist from the Australian National University in Canberra, and anatomist Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide — say they only looked briefly at these specimens and deny any improper conduct.

Jacob promised to return the bones in both January and February, by deadlines agreed with the Indonesian Centre. But he twice failed to do so, saying that he had not finished with the remains. On 23 February, the bones were at last returned to the centre, where they are being held under lock and key.

But some samples remain elsewhere. Pieces of rib bone given out by Jacob for genetic analysis are still at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and at another lab in Jakarta. If successful, analysis of DNA should help to pin down the evolution of the species.

The discovery team is demanding that this material also be returned immediately. In the meantime, the researchers are in Indonesia looking for more bones to verify and expand their theories.

References

  1. 1

    Brown, P. et al. Nature 431, 1055–1061 (2004).

  2. 2

    Morwood, M. J. et al. Nature 431, 1087–1091 (2004).

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