ON A Tuesday in early September 2003, Benyamin Tarus struck bone. Digging through a cave floor on the Indonesian island of Flores, his trowel sliced into the left eyebrow ridge of an ancient human skull.
It soon became clear that Benyamin had uncovered evidence of an extinct, diminutive human relative unlike anything scientists had seen before. It was given the name Homo floresiensis and nicknamed the hobbit.
The find was described as “the most significant discovery concerning our own genus in my lifetime” by one researcher, and justifiably so. H. floresiensis promised to overturn established ideas about the shape of our prehistoric family tree and the importance of big brains for the success of ancient humans. As importantly, the bones showed that south-east Asia had been a hotbed of ancient human evolution.
You might expect that Indonesian researchers would have been as excited as anyone by the discovery on their doorstep. You would be wrong. After H. floresiensis was announced to the world, a leading Indonesian archaeologist condemned the international reporting of the discovery as “unethical”. A few days later, he surprised his colleagues by helping another Indonesian researcher take possession of the bones. When they were returned several months later, some were damaged beyond repair.
It has long been a mystery to many people why the Indonesian scientists reacted so strongly. My research can help. I have spent six years digging into the H. floresiensis story and talking to Indonesian scientists. Not only do I now have a greater appreciation of the scientific …