Archaeologist 'hobbit' discoverer dies

2013-07-24 09:26

(Agus Suparto, AFP)

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Sydney - The Australian archaeologist who rocked the science world with his discovery of a tiny new species of human known as the "hobbit" has died after a year-long battle with cancer, his university said on Wednesday.

Mike Morwood, the professor who was instrumental in the discovery of Homo floresiensis in 2003, died on Tuesday, the University of Wollongong said. He was 62.

"It was the adventure of a lifetime for Mike," long-time colleague Bert Roberts said of the revelation on the Indonesian island of Flores which shook the scientific community and the world's understanding of human evolution.

"The fact that he actually could discover a brand new species of human, I mean, how many archaeologists and anthropologists can ever do that?

"It really is a very, very rare treat and Mike was just absolutely overjoyed to be able to go through that adventure, because it's never to be repeated."

Bizarre find

Roberts, who is director of the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS) at Wollongong, said Morwood was an inspiration to many of the early-career researchers who worked on the bizarre find in Flores, including a generation of young Indonesian researchers.

New Zealand-born Morwood, who earned his PhD from the Australian National University in Canberra, was also an expert on Aboriginal rock art, having carried out extensive research in Queensland and Western Australia states earlier in his career.

But he is best known for leading the team of Australian and Indonesian researchers that uncovered the partial skeleton of a 1m tall woman at Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

A further six partial skeletons of the tiny humans, who weighed just 30kg and had the brain the size of a chimp's, were later found, in addition to skeletons of megafaunal species including an extinct close relative of modern elephants and giant tortoise.

The extraordinary discovery sparked an intellectual battle that has raged ever since with one side declaring the "hobbits" - whose nickname is inspired by the little people of JRR Tolkien's tales - a separate species of human while others argue they were just diseased Homo sapiens, with a disorder that made them midget-like.

Morwood was described as an exceptional archaeologist and researcher.

"In the areas he chose to focus he was inevitably a game-changer... who made an extraordinary contribution to their field," said University of Western Australia academic Alistair Paterson.

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