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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 January 2007, 09:35 GMT
Hobbit cave digs set to restart
Liang Bua cave  Image: Mike Morwood
Researchers had not been able to excavate at the cave
Archaeologists who found the remains of human "Hobbits" have gained permission to restart excavations at the cave where the specimens were found.

Indonesian officials have blocked access to the cave since 2005, following a dispute over the bones.

But Professor Richard "Bert" Roberts, a member of the team that found the specimens, told BBC News the political hurdles had now been overcome.

The researchers claim that the remains belong to a novel species of human.

South-East Asia and East Asia is going to yield an awful lot of surprises
Mike Morwood, UNE
But some researchers reject this assertion, claiming instead that the remains could belong to a modern human with a combination of small stature and a brain disorder.

Finding other specimens in the cave, particularly one with an intact skull, is crucial to resolving the debate over whether the Hobbit's classification as a separate species - Homo floresiensis - is valid.

Political hurdle

"This year we will back in Liang Bua again, back in the cave where we found the Hobbits," said Professor Roberts, from the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Cast of Homo floresiensis skull  Image: PA
The "Hobbit" has forced a re-think of human evolution
"This is good; we've now managed to get over the political hurdles that had been put up. We'll probably be in there towards the middle of the year."

The Hobbit's discoverers are adamant it is an entirely separate human species that evolved a small size in isolation on its remote Indonesian island home of Flores.

Skeletal remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian research team in Liang Bua, a limestone cave deep in the Flores jungle, in 2003.

Researchers found one near-complete skeleton, which they named LB1, along with the remains of at least eight other individuals.

Vertically challenged

LB1 was an adult female who lived 18,000 years ago, stood just 1m (3ft) tall and possessed a brain size of around 400 cubic cm (24 cu inches) - about the same as that of a chimp.

Long arms, a sloping chin and other primitive features suggested affinities to ancient human species such as Homo erectus and even earlier ones such as Homo habilis and Australopithecus.

Map, BBC
These observations could imply that humanlike creatures - hominids, or hominins - reached island South-East Asia much earlier than had been thought.

The find caused a sensation when it was unveiled in 2004, because it suggested human evolution had been much more complicated in South-East Asia than previously imagined. It also showed that another species of human had survived into "modern" times.

Mike Morwood, director of the excavation, told BBC News the remains at Liang Bua could be the tip of the iceberg: "South-East Asia and East Asia are going to yield an awful lot of surprises and it's going to make a major contribution to our understanding of hominin evolution."

But not all researchers were happy about this hand grenade being tossed into one of palaeoanthropology's hallowed vestibules.

Professor Teuku Jacob, based at Gadjah Mada University, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, contended that the bones of LB1 could have been those of a pygmy person with the condition microcephaly, which is characterised by a small brain.

Bone damage

In 2004, Professor Jacob - known as Indonesia's "king of palaeoanthropology" - took the bones away from their repository in Jakarta to his lab in Yogyakarta, 443km (275 miles) away, against the wishes of the researchers who found them.

They were eventually returned. But the discoverers claimed the bones were extensively damaged in Jacob's lab during attempts to make casts.

The damage included long, deep cuts marking the lower edge of the Hobbit's jaw on both sides, said to be caused by a knife used to cut away the rubber mould.

In addition, the chin of a second Hobbit jaw was snapped off and glued back together. Whoever was responsible misaligned the pieces and put them at an incorrect angle.

The pelvis was smashed, destroying details that reveal body shape, gait and evolutionary history.

After the accusations surfaced, Professor Jacob denied damaging the remains, telling USA Today that breakages could have occurred when the bones were being transported from Yogyakarta back to Jakarta.

Excavations at Liang Bua were reportedly blocked because Indonesian government officials would not issue exploration permits for projects that might prove Professor Jacob wrong.

Momentous discovery

But the remaining issues now appear to have been smoothed over.

"It's now a matter of getting everything organised so we can start digging again," said Professor Roberts.

"You've got to get there in the dry season; in the wet season you can hardly drive to the site and when you are there, there are puddles of water all over the floor - so it's got to be dry to sensibly dig holes."

Speaking to BBC News before permission was given to restart excavation, Mike Morwood, from the University of New England, Australia, was optimistic about future research into H. floresiensis and the record of human occupation in island South-East Asia.

"This particular discovery seems to have prompted people to rethink what it is to be human, the relationship between brain size and behaviour, and whether hominin populations have been insulated from environmental factors. This indicates that they haven't.

"It also raises questions about the colonisation capabilities of early hominids. What are they doing on Flores and what are they almost certainly doing on other islands in South-East Asia."

It is still not known how hominids travelled by sea between these islands. Building watercraft may have been a skill too advanced for them.

So natural catastrophes such as tsunamis have been invoked by some researchers to explain their distribution. Hominids could have clung to trees as they were washed out to sea, eventually arriving on the shores of other islands.

New twist in 'hobbit' human story
31 May 06 |  Science/Nature
Team widens search for 'Hobbits'
14 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature
'Hobbit' stirs scientific clash
19 May 06 |  Science/Nature
More Flores 'Hobbits' described
11 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature
New 'Hobbit' disease link claim
23 Sep 05 |  Science/Nature
Hobbit was 'not a diseased human'
03 Mar 05 |  Science/Nature
'Hobbit' joins human family tree
27 Oct 04 |  Science/Nature

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