Flores hominid bones returned

Handover is unlikely to resolve scientific and ethical issues over Homo floresiensis

Feb 28, 2005
Tabitha Powledge(tam@nasw.org)

After a contentious sojourn in the lab of a senior Indonesian paleoanthropologist, most of the ancient hominid bones from the Indonesian island of Flores, published to acclaim in Nature last fall, are back in a new secure storage facility at their home institution, the Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta. Two leg bones from LB1, the 17,000-year-old type specimen nicknamed "The Hobbit" because it is so tiny, were left behind for additional study.

The controversy erupted after Teuku Jacob, professor emeritus of paleoanthropology at Gajah Mada University in Java, took the bones to his own lab. Jacob, who was not involved in the find, has said that this was standard practice and that scientists around the world have done research in the paleontology collections at Gajah Mada, which are particularly rich in Homo erectus fossils. Jacob could not be reached for comment.

"We've put a limit of March 3" for the return of the leg bones, Douglas Hobbs, a member of the joint Indonesian–Australian team that found and analyzed the bones, told The Scientist. "The femur is unique, so they wanted to study it further, just to take more measurements, and we said that was fine," said Hobbs, who was present at the handover. "What was critical to us were the arm bones and an extra jaw that we had found in 2004."

The 2004 discoveries, which came from the same strata as LB1, have not yet been analyzed completely or published. Hobbs said that the lower jaw contains a complete set of teeth, and the arm bones are much longer than those of Homo sapiens.

The return of the bones on Wednesday (February 23) was managed with cordiality and dignity, Hobbs says. But the handover seems unlikely to halt international rancor over scientific and ethical issues surrounding the Flores find.

"There are asymmetries of the skull and deformities of long bones that were not described as such by authors of the original papers," Maciej Henneberg, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, who has studied the bones in Jacob's lab and classifies them as microcephalic H. sapiens, told The Scientist in an E-mail.

"Ask him for his peer-reviewed publication, rather than his personal scratchings on the nearest wall," responded Peter Brown, of the University of New England in Australia, the bone specialist on the discovery team. Brown told The Scientist in an E-mail that last fall's papers describe LB1's legs as having some features different from modern humans, features also found in other leg bones from the site.

Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, said he received nasty E-mails and was called unethical because he carried a 1-gram chip of LB1's rib from Jacob's lab home for analysis by his colleague Svante Pääbo. Hublin said the Jakarta Centre for Archaeology granted formal authorization to perform the analysis and points out that ancient DNA is now routinely analyzed in at least two labs before publication anyway.

Jacob, he said, has been treated unfairly. "The way it's presented in most of the media is that a group of scientists has made a fantastic discovery, and this discovery has been 'stolen' by an old Indonesian scientist," Hublin told The Scientist. "I do believe it's a case of Western arrogance."

Editor's Note: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article mistakenly implied that Svante Pääbo had been the sender of contentious E-mails to colleague Jean-Jacques Hublin. The text has been corrected, and The Scientist deeply regrets the error.