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Indonesian archaeologist Thomas Sutikna was nursing a fever in a hotel room on September 2, 2003, when a coworker shared news of what turned out to be a once-in-a-generation discovery.
Earlier that day, a colleague’s trowel had hit a tiny human-like skull encased in 6-meter (19.7-foot) deep sediment in Liang Bua, a large cave in the highlands of the Indonesian island of Flores that Sutikna and his colleagues had been excavating since 2001. Sutikna’s fever immediately vanished, and after a fitful night’s sleep, he and his team set off for the site at sunrise.
They were thrilled to uncover more bones — some still attached to one another — in the same location at the high-ceilinged cave.
“There were leg bones, hand bones, tibia, femur, grouped in there, in one context.
Given the very fragile condition of the bone, it was not possible to lift it (out of the ground) immediately,” recalled Sutikna, now an archaeologist and researcher at Indonesia’s Center for Archaeometric Research at the country’s National Research and Innovation Agency.
To harden the brittle exposed bone, he applied some acetone nail polish remover bought from a cosmetics store mixed with glue the team had on site.
The team then brought the blocks of cut sediment containing the bones back to the hotel by minibus.
Wahyu Saptomo, one of the field archaeologists who had first told Sutikna about the discovery, remembered that they placed the blocks of soil on their laps — the safest place during a bumpy minibus ride on an unpaved road.
At first, the team thought perhaps the tiny skull and other bones belonged to a child, but as Sutikna cleaned the fossil at the hotel, he saw it had the molar teeth of an adult. It appeared to be a completely new kind of human, a female specimen with a perplexing combination of features that stood just over 3 feet (about 1 meter tall) and would have weighed around 66 pounds (30 kilograms).
“We were all surprised by the fossil, because after cleaning it could be seen that the teeth had all grown and were intact. The skull bones also showed that it was an adult bone, not a child’s skull,” said Sutikna, who subsequently took the fossil to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.
Now, 20 years later, scientists are still struggling to definitively place this enigmatic piece of the evolutionary puzzle. But the journey sparked by its discovery has led to revelations that challenge what’s known about the human family tree.
The team and its international collaborators knew from the start that what they had found was groundbreaking, and they worked hard to keep their discovery secret for more than a year so the remains could be studied in detail.
When they released the results of their research, in two studies published in the high-profile scientific journal Nature just over a year later, the findings shook up the field of paleoanthropology and captivated a wider audience, making headlines around the world.
Nicknamed hobbit — the massively popular first “Lord of the Rings” film had come out in late 2001 — by Mike Morwood, the late Australian archaeologist who had spearheaded the dig, the Liang Bua specimen looked like something from the movie’s Middle Earth realm.