Obituary - Mike Morwood

August 15, 2013

An archaeologist who discovered the bones of a “hobbit” in Indonesia, which may represent a completely new species of early human, has died.

Mike Morwood was born in Auckland, New Zealand on October 1950 and studied archaeology at the University of Auckland.

After completing a master’s degree at the same institution, he moved to the Australian National University in Canberra for a PhD in 1976, where he began to develop the expertise in rock art that would eventually lead to his major study, Visions from the Past: The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art (2002).

In 1981, after a short period working for the state of Queensland, Professor Morwood secured a post as a lecturer at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales. He was to remain there for most of the rest of his career, only in 2007 moving to Wollongong University, where he took up a chair in the School of Earth and Environmental Studies.

Although he carried out archaeological research in many parts of Australia, it was his work in the Kimberley region in Western Australia that led to Professor Morwood’s most remarkable breakthrough. There are a number of “trepang” sites on the coast, where from the start of the 18th century native Australians traded a species of sea cucumber that was greatly prized in China both for medical use and as a culinary delicacy. But if this was the first recorded contact between Asians and Australians, it left open major questions about the nature of earlier links.

It was in pursuit of this line of enquiry that, in 2003, Professor Morwood led a team to a cave on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. There he found the partial skeleton of an adult woman, estimated to have been just over 1m tall, and then later fragments of six further examples of what appeared to be a new species, and which was christened Homo floresiensis.

The interpretation of these remains has proved highly controversial. Although Professor Morwood published his own account in A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia (with Penny Van Oosterzee, 2007), other scholars strongly disputed his claim to have found a new species. Yet his discovery remains at the heart of attempts to understand the nature of human evolution from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens and the important role played by Asia in that process.

Professor Morwood ended his career with further investigations in the Kimberley region that were intended to cast fresh light on the initial peopling of Australia.

He died of cancer on 23 July and is survived by his wife, Francine, a daughter, Catherine, and two grandchildren.

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