Fellowship sets Griffith researcher on new hunt for the dawn of ‘hobbits’

Dr Adam Brumm
Dr Adam Brumm - Photo D. McGahan

Griffith University researcher Associate Professor Adam Brumm’s quest to find the origins of Homo floresiensis, the enigmatic ‘hobbits’ of Flores, Indonesia, has been given a significant boost through a prestigious Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council.

Associate Professor Brumm, head of archaeology at Griffith’s Australian Research Centre of Human Evolution, will utilise the $833,000 fellowship funding — along with generous support from Griffith University, and the Environmental Futures Research Institute — to conduct a pioneering search for hominin fossils on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, thought to be the hobbit’s original homeland.

“Sulawesi could be the key to understanding the origin of Homo floresiensis,” Associate Professor Brumm said.

“We think that this remote island was the stepping stone for the initial hominin colonisation of Flores from Asia at least a million years ago. There are as-yet untapped fossil riches on Sulawesi that may reveal vital clues about the evolutionary history of this remarkable human species.”

In January this year Associate Professor Brumm and team announced the unearthing of ancient stone tools on Sulawesi that long pre-date the arrival of Homo sapiens on that island, providing the first indication that this landmass was once home to an archaic and presently unidentified group of hominins.

In June, they also described the results of their intensive excavations on Flores, including the discovery of 700,000-year-old fossils from tiny hominins that may represent ancestors of Homo floresiensis.

“Through my Future Fellowship I will launch similarly large-scale fossil digs on Sulawesi, which has not been done before, to increase our chances of uncovering elusive hominin remains, including, hopefully, fossils of whichever species it was that gave rise to the Flores hobbits,” said Associate Professor Brumm.

Following on the heels of the recent Griffith-led discovery that Sulawesi harbours some of the oldest rock art on the planet, Associate Professor Brumm will also excavate cave sites across the island in search of further evidence for the symbolic culture of Sulawesi’s earliest ‘modern’ human colonists.

He also aims to determine whether the first Homo sapiens to reach Sulawesi overlapped with archaic hominins.

Complex human evolution in Asia

“In recent years we have come to realise how complex human evolution in Asia really was, and spectacularly so,” Associate Professor Brumm said.

“New branches of the human family tree have materialised on the basis of fossil discoveries in Southeast Asia, and we know from ancient DNA breakthroughs that there was extensive genetic intermingling between our species and extinct forms of humans.

“It is crucial to determine whether the people who made the 40,000-year-old Ice Age art on Sulawesi arrived to find this island devoid of human life, or if, as was perhaps the case on Flores, they entered an environment that was still inhabited by a distinct hominin species.”

Recent discoveries show that ancestors of modern-day Aboriginal Australians met and interbred with at least one mystery lineage of earlier hominins (Denisovans) somewhere in far eastern Asia, and quite possibly in island Indonesia, prior to reaching our shores at least 50,000 years ago.

“It might have been on Sulawesi where our species first came face-to-face with distant evolutionary kin who had been shut off in tropical Asia for many hundreds of millennia,” Associate Professor Brumm said. “If so, that will be a truly spectacular discovery.”

Another two Griffith University researchers working in the fields of human origins have also been successful in the latest round of Australian Research Council grants.

Dr Julien Louys has secured a $652,000 Future Fellowship for a project that aims to test whether humans moving through Southeast Asia used a savannah corridor, facilitating their migrations into Sumatra and Java. It also aims to examine the effect of rainforests on human movements and evolution.

These results are expected to provide a new understanding of the environmental context of human evolution in Asia, and identify routes ancient people took as they moved south through Asia and into Australia.

Origins of Australia’s non-Pama-Nyungan speaking people

Griffith University’s Professor David Lambert, heading a team of international researchers, has been granted $533,000 under the ARC Discovery Projects scheme to explore the origins of Australia’s non-Pama-Nyungan speaking people.

This project aims to test the likelihood of multiple migrations into Australia before European arrival and determine if the phylogenetic relationships among non-Pama-Nyungan languages is mirrored by their speakers’ genomic phylogenetic relationships.

The non-Pama-Nyungan First People of Australia speak an extraordinary number and diversity of Aboriginal languages, but the origins of these languages and the genomic diversity of the people who speak them are only now starting to be understood.

The research team comprises Dr Michael Westaway, Dr Erich Round, Professor Eske Willerslev, Associate Professor Craig Millar, Associate Professor Claire Bowern and Professor Russell Gray.

The work is being conducted in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, The University of Auckland, The University of Queensland, University of Copenhagen and Yale University.

The projects were two of 30 Griffith studies that shared $11.5million in funding from the ARC this week.