The discovery by UOW researchers of the small-bodied human species Homo floresiensis on the island of Flores, Indonesia was one of the most spectacular scientific finds of the last century. Public interest in this discovery helped to strengthen tourism on Flores, while our archaeologists’ ongoing excavations provide income directly to locals through employment, and indirectly through the establishment of museums, development of infrastructure, and increased tourism in an otherwise impoverished area. In the broader public sphere, the significant media attention garnered by Homo floresiensis has translated into numerous documentaries and international museum exhibits. But the enduring impact of the research is in its transformation of scientific and public understanding of human evolution.
11. Sustainable cities and communities
16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
Details of the Impact
“When a new fossil is found it is often claimed that it will rewrite the anthropological textbooks. But in the case of an astonishing new discovery from Indonesia, this claim is fully justified” (Chris Stringer, Nature News, 2004).
The 2003 discovery of the human species Homo floresiensis – often referred to as ‘the Hobbit’ – in the cave of Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores is one of the most important archaeological finds of the last century. The discovery of this small-brained, small-bodied human that overlapped in time with our own species changed scientific and popular understandings of human evolution. The impacts of Homo floresiensis, however, extend beyond anthropological textbooks. The discovery has invigorated and transformed public perceptions of human origins, while fuelling economic opportunities on Flores through tourism and employment.
The initial discovery of Homo floresiensis caused a media sensation. As Leigh Dayton from The Australian recalls: “It was huge, absolutely huge. Everybody was talking about it. Even my editors who absolutely do not like science whatsoever, they were fascinated” (cited in Callaway, Nature, 2014). The captivating nature of these finds translated into numerous short and feature-length popular science documentaries – including ‘The Hobbit Enigma’ (ABC) and ‘Alien from Earth’ (PBS Nova).
The discovery by UOW researchers in 2016 at Mata Menge of the Hobbits’ likely ancestors triggered more than 1,000 news articles around the world, while the Homo floresiensis page on Wikipedia had c. 680,000 views between July 2015 and December 2016; the period for which statistics are available within the assessment period. A YouTube search for ‘Homo floresiensis’ produces c. 4,000 videos, and though many intersect only tangentially with the underlying science (e.g. ‘Cannibal Hobbits in Indonesia?’), this only highlights the popular fascination with the species.
The Hobbit’s importance is evident in permanent museum displays around the world, including but not limited to the Bandung Geological Museum in Indonesia, the Australian Museum, the Museum of Natural History in London, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. As Stringer foresaw, Homo floresiensis has taken its place in anthropological textbooks, from Britannica Educational’s ‘Human Evolution’ to numerous general-interest texts. The incorporation of Homo floresiensis into narratives of human evolution has an impact on long-term knowledge of our past, as summarised on the Australian Museum’s Homo floresiensis webpage: “their unusual features and recent survival suggests our human family tree is more complex than once thought”.
While Homo floresiensis had wide impact on public perceptions of human evolution, its deepest impacts occurred around the location of the discovery. The island of Flores (East Nusa Tenggara) is one of the least economically developed in Indonesia , with high rates of unemployment and heavy reliance on subsistence farming. Given limited export resources, Flores has been identified by the Indonesian Government as one of ten targets for economic development through significantly increased tourism . Along with Komodo dragons, the cave of the ‘Hobbits’ forms one of the most high-profile attractions of the island, featuring on the government’s ‘Wonderful Indonesia’ website, as well as being listed as one of the ‘Eight Wonders of Flores’.
The excavations at Liang Bua – a collaboration between UOW and Indonesian archaeologists – began in 2001, with complementary and continuing work at the site of Mata Menge from 2004. Across the reference period the Mata Menge excavations have employed c.130 people from nearby villages for periods of up to 70 days each year, in addition to 50 people employed at Liang Bua. The people employed by the project had no regular jobs, earning their income as day labourers. Project wages exceed Indonesian government labour rates, providing an important supplement to annual income. In addition, our research teams rented accommodation in nearby Mengeruda during excavations, and procured domestic services (laundry, catering) from the local population. The presence of up to 43 researchers during extended periods in the village provided a major source of income for the local population.
Our involvement with projects on Flores is underwritten by formal training programs, providing key skills transfer aimed at fostering archaeological resource-management and research capabilities. This is part of our MOU with the Indonesian National Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS). So far, nine Indonesian nationals have received postgraduate qualifications from UOW; two of whom are are currently employed at ARKENAS, another two at the Geological Survey Indonesia, and one is a postdoctoral fellow at UOW.
In 2012, UOW staff members Sutikna and the late Mike Morwood were consultants in the establishment of a museum close to Liang Bua dedicated to the finds made there; selecting content and developing displays. Construction of the museum included a contribution equivalent to AUD$500k from the West Manggerai District Administration. The museum is staffed by two people from local villages, who also serve as guides to the cave. Construction of the museum and the profile of the site motivated further improvements to regional infrastructure, including a paved road from the closest town, Ruteng. Morwood, Sutikna and Gert Van Den Bergh (UOW) had ongoing roles as consultants to the natural history museum established at Mengeruda near Mata Menge in 2013.
Our archaeological work at Liang Bua and Mata Menge, and the exposure of the finds there have generated both immediate and long-term economic benefits to Flores and Indonesia, one of Australia’s most strategically important regional neighbours.
- Local communities in Flores
- West Manggerai District Administration
- Indonesian Government
- Documentary makers
- Science media
Approach to Impact
Summary of the approaches to impact
Archaeology at UOW is undertaken within the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), established with a vision to develop a world-leading centre in archaeological science and human evolution. High profile projects at the intersection of science and humanities are central to the strategic objectives of CAS. To achieve the impacts documented here, UOW made significant and sustained investments in personnel to expand archaeological research capabilities, and funding to maintain project continuity and enhance community integration in key areas. Impacts were fostered through strategies to maximise the public visibility of research outcomes, and through deep and enduring research partnerships with key stakeholders.
Approach to Impact
UOW is dedicated to creating pathways from research and scholarship to beneficial impacts on the broader community. Our Strategic Plan outlines our commitment to engage with ‘academic, business and community partners to ensure that the contributions of our students and researchers are effectively disseminated and have an impact at global and regional levels’.
We pursue this through numerous strategies and structures, including targeted support for key areas of research in UOW’s Major Entities and Research Strengths. UOW’s flagship interdisciplinary research program, Global Challenges, supports research with impact in the community and the region. These strategies are reinforced through Faculty-supported research groupings and Faculty-based grants that encourage impactful research. Research in FoR 21, clustered in Historical Studies in the Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts (LHA) and Archaeology in the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health (SMAH), is supported through these mechanisms and results in partnerships that heighten our impact.
At UOW, Archaeology is coordinated in the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS), one of the University’s ten Research Strengths. The founding vision of CAS was to develop a world-leading centre in archaeological science and human evolution through targeted research into scientific issues of broad public relevance. Acknowledging the unusual position of archaeology at the nexus of science and the humanities, and particularly its potential to serve public-interest science, UOW, SMAH and CAS pursued this vision through an integrated four‑part strategy involving: (i) developing a critical mass of personnel, (ii) identifying and supporting key projects, (iii) building international networks, and (iv) ensuring public dissemination of findings. These strategic elements have laid the foundations for the impact described.
Archaeological science at UOW developed from the established expertise of Prof Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts in geochronology (dating), who was involved in the initial discovery of Homo floresiensis. Recognising the far-reaching significance of the finds, and in line with our first and second strategic elements, UOW made a series of appointments – Mike Morwood (2007), Gert van den Bergh (2008) and Adam Brumm (2009) – which vested principal responsibility for this research at UOW. These strategies were further pursued through targeted recruitments in archaeological science and human evolution – Zenobia Jacobs (2006), Katherine Szabó (2009), Maxime Aubert (2011), Li Bo (2012), and Alex Mackay (2013) – and by increasing the number of continuing positions from one to six. These positions added new key projects to the CAS portfolio, providing a global platform for impact. Five more fellows were appointed under Prof Roberts’ ARC Laureate grant (2014-18).
CAS members have been successful in obtaining competitive funds, and in line with our second strategic element, have bolstered research activities and ensured continuity via additional project support channelled through SMAH and CAS. Examples include the award of $17k to Van Den Bergh in 2016 (“The Insular Evolution of Homo floresiensis on Flores”) to sustain the employment of trained men and women from the village of Mengeruda, fostering their sense of project ownership and contributing to the local economy. SMAH-funded equipment purchases include improved beta radiation detection facilities ($75k), which enhanced our world-class luminescence dating laboratories. CAS funds have also been used to outfit a new lab dedicated to understanding fundamental principles in early human technologies.
The third strategic element in developing our vision for CAS involved developing deep, long-standing relationships with stakeholders, secured through informal and formal agreements. CAS researchers have well‑established links with local personnel in key project areas, facilitating access and securing critical support services and resources. Our work on Flores is underwritten by a MOU with the Indonesian National Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), providing a platform for joint research activities, workshops, and the exchange of students and researchers. As noted in part A, the MOU has seen nine Indonesian nationals undertake graduate studies at UOW, while our researchers have facilitated workshops and training programs in Indonesia, contributed expertise to the creation of permanent curatorial facilities, and participated in regional cultural festivities. This sharing of people and information has enriched the cultural and intellectual environments of both institutions. Our strategic partnership with ARKENAS has fostered the development of archaeological resource-management capabilities in Indonesia that will prove critical to the preservation of sites, finds, and the evolutionary story they tell. These in turn appear increasingly important to the tourism potential of both Flores and the broader region.
The final strategic element involves public dissemination of findings. The UOW media office provided the principal pathway for this approach through strategic news releases reaching a broad range of media – more than 20 involving CAS projects from 2011-16. These included discussion of the implications of major findings and regularly emphasised the importance of stakeholders in archaeological activities such as “Two-way dialogue in Illawarra coastal midden research” (2013) and “Excavating ancient knowledge through archaeology partnership” (2015). CAS and SMAH have also made financial commitments in pursuit of this strategy, including $10k to Szabó’s Future Fellowship to fund the production of a bilingual booklet describing project outcomes and $5k to provide “Video resources to promote Homo Floresiensis (The Hobbit)”. Formalising this approach within CAS, the administrative structure includes a Communication and Outreach officer, tasked with ensuring flow-through of information to the wider public.
Excavations at the cave site Liang Bua on the island of Flores were directed by Morwood and Sutikna from 2001 to the present. The remains of several individuals assigned to the species Homo floresiensis were first published in 2004 [3, 4]. Homo floresiensis is very small for a human, at approximately 1.3 m tall. Research has so far demonstrated that Homo floresiensis was a distinctive species in our genus [3, 5] rather than a modern human suffering developmental abnormality; inhabited Flores from at least 95,000 years ago until at least 60,000 years ago, potentially co-existing with our species ; used tools like those made by early humans in Africa but probably did not use fire [7, 8]; consumed a diet including large rodents and lizards ; and descended from ancestors who arrived on Flores as early as 700,000 years ago .
UOW’s studies into Homo floresiensis were built around an enduring research and training partnership with the National Research Centre of Archaeology (ARKENAS) in Indonesia, through a MOU signed in 2008. This partnership has seen UOW provide postgraduate training for Indonesian students and in 2014 was strengthened by the award of the Michael J. Morwood Postdoctoral Fellowship to Dr Sutikna.
UOW researchers involved in this research were Prof Morwood (project leader); Prof Richard Roberts; Prof Richard Fullagar; Assoc Prof Katherine Szabó; Dr Gerrit Van Den Bergh; Dr Thomas Sutikna and Dr Mike Morley.
1. Roland-Holst, D. and B. Frielink, Trade and Growth Horizons for Nusa Tenggara Timur and Timor-Leste, in Southeast Asia Working Paper Series. 2009, Asian Development Bank.
2. World Bank, Indonesia Economic Quarterly, October 2016: Pressures Easing. 2016, World Bank: Washington, DC.
3. Brown, P., et al., A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia. Nature, 2004. 431: pp. 1055-1061.
4. Morwood, M.J., et al., Archaeology and age of a new hominin from Flores in eastern Indonesia. Nature, 2004. 431(7012): pp. 1087-1091.
5. Argue, D., et al., Homo floresiensis: microcephalic, pygmoid, Australopithecus, or Homo? J Hum Evol, 2006. 51(4): pp. 360-74.
6. Sutikna, T., et al., Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature, 2016. 532: pp. 366-369.
7. Morley, M.W., et al., Initial micromorphological results from Liang Bua, Flores (Indonesia): Site formation processes and hominin activities at the type locality of Homo floresiensi. Journal of Archaeological Science, 2016.
8. Brumm, A., et al., Early stone technology on Flores and its implications for Homo floresiensis. Nature, 2006. 441(7093): pp. 624-8.
9. van den Bergh, G.D., et al., The Liang Bua faunal remains: a 95k.yr. sequence from Flores, East Indonesia. J Hum Evol, 2009. 57(5): pp. 527-37.
10. van den Bergh, G.D., et al., Homo floresiensis-like fossils from the early Middle Pleistocene of Flores. Nature, 2016. 534(7606): pp. 245-248.