The story of an unexpected hobbit discovery on the Indonesian island of Flores is fairly well known (–and if you don’t know it, check out this piece by Ewen Callaway, or my post on the discovery). A team of interdisciplinary scientists led by archaeologist Mike Morwood was looking for clues about human migration to Australia in the beautiful cave of Liang Bua when they unexpectedly stumbled upon what appeared to be an entirely new hominin species in 2003. Like so many stories in the history of science, there is, of course, a back story that began unloading long before 2003. It is that back story that has been occupying my mind lately.
How did Morwood’s team even know to look at Liang Bua as a potential field site? Interestingly, a Dutch priest named Father Theodor Verhoeven. In the 1950s-60s, while working at the Mataloko Catholic Seminary, Verhoeven spent his extra time exploring limestone caves, looking for potential archaeological sites that would unveil the history of humans and human ancestors on the island of Flores.
When Verhoeven first came across Liang Bua, it was being used as a classroom for local students. Once class was moved out of the cave, Verhoeven conducted a test trench in the large, “ cool cave.” His test excavation revealed some artifacts and interesting faunal remains, so Verhoeven went on to spend two weeks excavating the west wall and finding quite a mixture of archaeological material.
But Verhoeven’s discoveries weren’t limited to artifacts buried in Liang Bua–he also made surprising finds at many other nearby sites, including Mata Menge. At Mata Menge, he found large chopping tools and hand axes alongside the remains of extinct, pygmy elephants (Stegodon). For Verhoeven, this suggested that early humans must have lived on Flores at the same time as the now-extinct, ancient Stegodon.
This was a pretty revolutionary idea, which Verhoeven expanded to argue that Homo erectus had reached Flores almost 700,000 years ago, not long after their arrival on nearby Java. Reaching Flores is no minor feat, however, and scientists were skeptical of his claims. Coming over to the volcanic island requires crossing the Wallace Line and battling particularly aggressive, dangerous ocean currents. When Verhoeven published his claims in a series of papers beginning in the late 1950s, he was largely dismissed. Scientists picked apart his methods and questioned whether the stone tools had just gotten mixed up with Stegodon fossils at a later date.
As sometimes is the case in the history of science, many of Verhoeven’s claims were later proven to be correct—though only after his death. For example, Mata Menge has turned out to be a hugely fruitful site, and just last summer scientists announced they had found a tiny jaw bone there– confirming Verhoeven’s notion at least close relatives of Homo erectus had arrived on the island by 700,000 years ago.