Sunday, April 10, 2011

Little people and a lost world: An anthropological mystery

In her contribution to the Discovery! Series, a set of science books for middle school scholars, Linda Goldenberg, a school librarian and author living in New Paltz, New York, examines the controversy surrounding the discovery of the remains of Homo floresensis. Although written for the younger reader, she gives an engaging description of the hunt for human fossils on the Indonesian island of Flores, a detailing of the recovery effort of the first Homo floresiensis remains and the subsequent intrigue involving the removal and return of the remains by an Indonesian official. Furthermore, Goldenberg ties in the lore that has been passed down through oral tradition amongst the people of Flores about the ebu gogo.

Although many had believed a paleoanthropological find impossible, a few researchers insisted upon looking for evidence of human ancestors on the island of Flores. This island is separated from nearby Java, home of many ancestral finds, by “Wallace’s Line”, a deep crevice that separates the island chain. Many scientists believe that during the Ice Age, when sea water was considerably lower due to being trapped in ice, land bridges may have formed allowing human ancestors to travel to nearby lands. However, the deep crevice of Wallace’s Line would not have allowed a land bridge to form, connecting Flores to the western Indonesian islands. Therefore, any human ancestors would have been required to travel by watercraft. Unfortunately, such evidence would not have been preserved.

When the Homo floresiensis remains were found in 2003, a full 20 feet below the surface floor of the Liang Bua cave, they were not yet fossilized and were exceptionally delicate. They were treated with a hardening agent, carefully removed and taken to Thomas Sutikna’s lab in Jakarta. He used CT scans to initiate his studies of the remains before, under much intrigue, they were suddenly taken by Indonesia’s renowned paleontologist, Teuku Jacob. Oddly, Jakob sequestered the remains only to return them damaged due to mishandling. A short two years later, the cave was ordered closed to scientific inquiry by the Indonesian government.

Inhabitants of the Island of Flores, when interviewed previous to the Homo floresiensis find in 1990 by anthropologist/historian Caty Husbands, spoke of the ebu gogo - a small, hairy creature that did not speak, yet could parrot back what was said. When she likened the stories to the English “boogie monster”, she was told that the stories were not the same because the ebu gogo had actually lived. Although stories differ slightly from village to village, all tales of the ebu gogo have them meeting their demise by the ancestors of modern people. Furthermore, all stories involved some account of a fire in the cave of the ebu gogo, often started by the trickery of the modern people’s ancestors. To add more credence to these tales is the fact that in none of them are the ebu gogo gifted with fanciful abilities or magical powers. They are just primitive, little people that stole food and children from the ancestors of the people that still inhabit the island.

Although written for children, Goldenberg provided a clear, concise and illuminating history surrounding the ebu gogo and the controversial remains of Homo floresiensis.

Goldenberg, L. (2007). Little people and a lost world: An anthropological mystery. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publishing Group.

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