A Day at Liang Bua

In 2004, the discovery of a tiny hominin catapulted the limestone cave of Liang Bua into the scientific spotlight. Few people realize, however, that Liang Bua’s scientific history extends both long before the hobbit’s discovery and continues unfolding to the present day. On a recent trip to the cave, where I was hoping to learn more about the discovery of Homo floresiensis, I became captivated by the history of the site, as well as with the research that has continued to unfold in the decade since the legendary discovery. As a historian, the daily practices of scientific excavation are important to me, as they help to paint the picture of the scientific story. With this in mind, I hope to provide a glimpse into a day at this infamous cave, a place that has so captured my own imagination, as well as countless others.

8:00 A.M. The day begins in Ruteng, a relatively small town in the Manggarai district of the oceanic island of Flores. Ruteng is situated 4,000 feet above sea level, just below a mountain range comprised of numerous ancient volcanos, making it surprisingly cool in the mornings and evenings.

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8:30 A.M. The drive to Liang Bua from Ruteng is both terrifying while somehow simultaneously being smoother than I had imagined. At first, the road is fine, though a bit narrow, as roads on the island of Flores tend to be. It overlooks breathtaking volcanoes, rolling green hills, and countless rice terraces. The road is barely wide enough for one car, yet somehow our Indonesian driver, Gebi, manages to negotiate space for two every time we pass oncoming vehicles whenever we encounter them—removing years from the end of my life in the process. Soon, the road begins to descend toward Liang Bua and here is where the ride begins to get bumpy. The asphalt under our wheels is destroyed—broken up and eroding all over the place—a result of the tropical weather, combined with the subpar materials used to build the road and the fact that weight limits are completely ignored by Indonesian drivers.

Along the road, we pass Manggarai villages and children playing in the street pause to wave at the foreigners, yelling “Hi Mister!” This seems to be the most universal English phrase in Indonesia. The rains were heavy yesterday, resulting in a flooded section of the road once we reach Liang Bua valley. The flooded road is due to the Wae Racang, the same river that was crucial in forming the Liang Bua cave as we know it today. This flooded section of road seems alarmingly deep to me, but Gebi, as always, appears unphased.

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Our ride is remarkably comfortable when compared to the journey the team endured to get to Liang Bua in the early 2000s, when this series of Indonesian-Australian lead excavations began. After experimenting riding in the beds of large trucks, excavation leader Mike Morwood, insisted on taking local buses (bemos) down to the cave. This meant cramming into an almost windowless van, often alongside chain-smoking locals, enduring countless breakdowns and delays. That ride, too, was luxury compared to the method used half a century ago by team member Rokus Due Awe. Rokus began working at Liang Bua in the 1965, walking from his hometown when the field season began. There were no roads to Liang Bua then, the journey took about a week.

9:15 A.M. After about 45 minutes in the car, covering 14 kilometers or so, we roll up to the cave. We’re certainly a motley crew today. In addition to the excavation leaders, Dr. Matt Tocheri and Dr. Richard Roberts, our car is packed with fossil bird expert Dr. Hanneke Meijer, legendary senior editor at Nature Dr. Henry Gee, and of course me—the historian. Pulling up to Liang Bua, the first thing you notice is the cave’s sheer size. Tucked into the hillside, the massive, open mouth of the cave practically beckons for you to enter—despite the pointy, dangerously looking stalagties that hang from the ceiling.

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The next phenomenon to hit your senses upon arrival is the noise of the generator humming loudly in the cave corner. The generator powers lights deep in the excavation pit, a luxury that didn’t exist the year the hobbit was found (2003). Back then, if light was needed, they used short-lived emergency lights and occasionally torches that burned their eyes. Despite the humming generator, cicadas can be heard buzzing about outside, a true tribute to their volume. The locals say that the cicada noise indicates the wet season is coming to an end.

Once inside the cave, it somehow appears even bigger. The morning light makes the intense greenery that surrounds the cave mouth seemingly glow. The local workers are already here, working away. Most of them have walked from one of the three nearby villages that make up the crew. The thirty or so workers are spread out throughout the cave, completing different tasks in the excavation process. Some are digging in the trenches, others carrying away buckets of dirt, and others still sorting through the discoveries. One area is center to the hum of activity this season, a cluster of sectors towards the back of the cave. The entire area is covered with a large orange tarp, held up by bamboo posts that were brought in from the local area. The tarp protects the excavation from the steady drip of the wet season from the cave roof. If left unprotected, these deep excavation pits can become a little unstable and dangerous cave-ins can occur.

10:00 A.M. Yesterday’s rain means that the cave is dripping quite a bit today, both onto the tarp and into buckets strategically placed around the cave. The tarp is doing its job, the excavation remains dry—well, as dry as anything ever is at Liang Bua. Most everything in the cave is pretty damp; from the moss-covered rocks, to the mud that cakes on shoes and excavation tools. Even sediment layers buried meters below the surface retain the dampness. The temperature of the cave is remarkably pleasant; it certainly lives up to its name. Liang Bua means “cool cave,” a fact I am reminded of every time I step outside, where it feels oppressively hot.

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10:30 A.M. Soon after we arrive it’s coffee time. The workers all fetch steaming cups of coffee and come together to sit and chat, sitting on wooden boards that provide a better rest than the cave floor. Everyone smokes their cigarettes and chats in a light-hearted way that echoes throughout the cave. It occurs to me that this chatter makes this the loudest time of the day at Liang Bua, but in a pleasant way. Then, a series of claps signals the end of coffee time and everyone returns to their stations.

11:00 A.M. Today, an Indonesian film crew is here to make a film about Homo floresiensis. Dr. Tocheri and his excavation co-leader, Dr. Thomas Sutikna, brought casts of hobbit bones up to the cave from the small museum located just down the street. Locals built the museum a few years ago to give tourists visiting Liang Bua a chance learn more about floresiensis. Next to the museum, they are currently building a little shack that will be turned into the Liang Bua Café—a great place to get some delicious, local Manggarai coffee.

Tocheri is giving a talk on floresiensis for the camera crew. He is seated on a workbench, behind a table with the bones splayed out in proper anatomical position. He is delivering the lecture in seemingly effortless Indonesian—a surprising fact given his Canadian roots. The entire work crew has gathered around, kneeling and appearing very attentive to Tocheri’s talk, some of them nodding as he points out various aspects of the skeleton’s anatomy. Maybe it’s just me, but one worker, in particular, appears to be looking on with an acutely proud look—it’s Benyamin, the person who initially unearthed the skeleton in 2003.

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11:15 A.M. After Tocheri’s talk, everyone claps and many disperse to go back to work. Some workers remain behind, however, because floresiensis’ temporary display in the cave makes for a unique photo op. One by one, men come to pose by the hobbit as Dr. Sunitka takes their picture. No one smiles; instead they look directly into the camera in a focused way that is truly striking. Many of the men are very serious, but some are clear jokesters, one poses in a fake kiss with LB1.

It’s difficult for me to ascertain the ages of many Indonesians, but some of them appear to be quite old (though very healthy), and I wonder how many years they‘ve worked at Liang Bua. For many, the answer is likely decades, as the cave has a way of retaining workers for many years. It’s not uncommon for a Liang Bua excavator to be both following in the footsteps of his father while working alongside his son. Benyamin is an example of this, he now works alongside his father, who has worked here since he was a boy. Back then, Benyamin used to come to Liang Bua often to bring lunch to his father, as many Manggarai children still do today.

11:30 A.M. After the brief hobbit photoshoot, the work resumes. The busy sector in the back of the cave has been dug a few meters deep already and is lit by a couple of light bulbs hanging from above. The sector is divided into squares, marked off by yellow string, which helps keep track of precise locations of any discoveries. Metal trowels are the tools of choice while digging, used to scrape away the damp clay. When digging in the excavation pits, most workers choose to go barefoot, a method that seems much less clumsy and slippery than my hiking boots. Once broken lose, the men transfer the damp dirt into buckets using their hands, and the buckets are taken away, later to be sifted through to look for smaller bones and stone tools that may have escaped initial notice. Those buckets will soon be taken down to a rice paddy that the team has rented for the excavation season. Here, they use the natural flow of water to “wet siev” the dirt, passing it through thin wire meshes designed catch even the tiniest bones.

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This is all part of a system of seamless handing off of duties, those down in the trenches pass buckets up to others on the surface, who immediately pass them to those sifting, and so on. To the outsider, the transitions between people climbing in and out of the deep excavation pits with clipboards and trowels appear to be part of a shockingly smooth overall arrangement. Much of this smoothness is the result of that longevity of workers at Liang Bua. More than a few of the men kneeling in the corner doing the sifting have been working here since 1978, Benyamin’s father included.

12:00 P.M. For lunch, people break off into small groups, settling in to eat in various corners of the massive cave, occasionally climbing over broken stalagtites and disappearing from view on the other side. Then after lunch, it’s back to work. At the wooden table set up on one side of the cave, stone tool expert Jatmiko helps students sort through artifacts, occasionally humming and singing quietly to himself. Jatmiko goes by only the single name, a relatively common Indonesian phenomenon, but one that has apparently caused problems when the team submits research papers to international journals that are more used to western customs.

12:30 P.M. Next to Jatmiko, Dr. Henry Gee helps Dr. Hanneke Meijer sort through the tiny bones that have been found by the sifters. Dr. Gee claims this sorting and counting of tiny bones it is somewhat therapeutic. There are hundreds of tiny fragments of jaws and teeth and even more tiny leg bones. Every now and then, the occasional heel bone pops up.

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Most of the bone fragments Meijer and Gee are sorting belong to rats. The excavators refer to Liang Bua as the “rat cave,” because over 80% of the bones found at Liang Bua are rats. Some of the rats are truly giant—animals can grow to all sorts of weird sizes on islands—and Liang Bua’s giant rats have been quite successful. In fact, it is the rats (giant rats included) who have been the true winners in the Liang Bua story, as Dr. Tocheri points out. They have been here the whole time, long before modern humans and lasting to the present day.

1:00 P.M. After lunch, I follow Dr. Richard Roberts and hobbit discoverer, Benyamin, down into Sector 4, a deep pit that reaches 8 meters beneath the cave floor. The bamboo ladder groans as I descend into the dirt hole, but it seems to be well constructed. This particular pit is one of the deeper ones at Liang Bua this season, so wooden planks have been installed to ensure it doesn’t cave in—a method called shoring. Roberts learned this method alongside the original excavation leader Mike Morwood when they took a grave digging course in Australia. The origins of various scientific methods sometimes arise from weird places, but it works.

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Earlier today, Roberts and Benyamin began the process of getting samples from this sector for OSL dating—a technique that helps assign dates to the stratigraphic layers by revealing the last time the quartz in the sediment was exposed to light (so before it was buried underground). Essentially, Roberts and Benyamin had jammed a bunch of PBC pipes into the wet dirt, trying to avoid rocks as much as possible. They are now removing the pipes, a task made quite tricky by the fact that the dirt samples within the pipes need to be kept entirely in the dark—any exposure to light will reset the quartz clock and skew the dates.

These particular dating samples are all from “the hobbit layers,” as the team refers to them. The hobbit layers are the sediments deposited when H. floresiensis lived here, and they are notoriously filled with stone tools and stegodon bones (pygmy elephants, seemingly a favorite food of hobbits). Occasionally when Benyamin pulls the PBC pipes out, along with it comes a stone tool or a stegodon tooth. Benyamin immediate identifies these, smiling and saying “stegodon,” then handing them to me and getting on with his work. As I clean the thick clay off the tools and examine them more closely, Roberts remarks that I am the first person to inspect this artifact in over 60,000 years, a tool made by an entirely other species of human.

2:00 P.M. Watching Benyamin and Roberts work together is utterly entrancing. Neither speaks the other’s language, yet it’s instantly clear they have repeated this process of taking samples together for over a decade. Roberts sometimes speaks to Benyamin in English, knowing that he can’t understand. This almost seems to be Roberts’ way of logically laying out the next steps in the process for himself, but Benyamin picks up on the context clues despite the foreign tongue.

The only time I saw Roberts and Benyamin understand each other with words was when I remarked how skilled and careful Benyamin was when it came to excavating. Roberts reminded me “it was Benyamin, after all, who found the hobbit!” At this, Benyamin turned from the wall of dirt he was chiseling away at, and looked at us, beaming. He said simply “Homo floresiensis!” Roberts nodded and replied “hobbit hunter!” Everyone nodded and laughed, then returned to work.

I can’t help but wonder if Benyamin finds it strange that a scientist demands such lengths be taken for dirt to remain in the dark. It truly is an odd, arduous process keeping the samples away from light. In fact, Benyamin and Roberts will be at Liang Bua until about midnight tonight collecting other samples that require sheer darkness and therefore can only be obtained after the sun goes down. It would probably quite difficult for Benyamin to imagine the University laboratory in Australia where these samples will be taken, and then the chemical analyses they will undergo. Whether or not he concerns himself with these thoughts, he handles his role in the process very carefully. It seems to me, though, that Benyamin likely understands the oddities of Liang Bua better than most.

4:00 P.M. The sampling takes hours, and once I climb back up the ladder from sector 4, I immediately realize the cave has gotten quite dark. It’s also raining outside, as it often does in the afternoons. The security from the rain reminds me how impressively climate controlled Liang Bua is. Other than those occasional drips from the cave ceiling, the cave remains largely dry.

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4:20 P.M. The day at Liang Bua usually wraps up around 4 pm—though in Indonesia, time is somewhat flexible. The team calls Indonesian time “rubber time,” because it is malleable and ever changing. So it’s usually closer to 4:30 when we get back in the car to make the ascent up to Ruteng. As we prepare to leave, the generator gets shut off and the cave becomes extremely quiet, the silence interrupted only by the chatter of a few of us packing up, and the water dripping from the cave roof into buckets.

This ends a day at Liang Bua. On the way out, I take another look at the cave. Its size and significance continue to overwhelm me. Liang Bua is an even more magical place than I had imagined, made magical in large part by those who are working there. So thank you to the entire team at Liang Bua for allowing a historian to pass through, I am excited to begin working on a history of this incredible cave and the scientific work that has occurred here. (All photos mine).

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