Have the hobbits been protsched?

3 minute read

USA Today has a feature article about the damage to the Liang Bua fossils upon their return from Yogyakarta. The article is available online, but the pictures of the damage do not accompany the online edition. The pictures show the innominates broken into small fragments, and one of the mandibles apparently broken and glued into a misaligned position.

Here are two pictures. The damage is most profound to the innominate, but of course no attempt has been made at repair:

The article lists the damage:

The team charges the remains were severely damaged by rubber molds made at Jacob's lab:
Much of the detail at the base of the skull was pulled off.
The left outer eye socket and two teeth were broken off and glued back. Bits of molded rubber still adhere to some sections.
Long, deep cuts mark the lower edge of the hobbit's jaw on both sides, left by a blade used to cut away molded rubber.
The chin of a second hobbit jaw was snapped off, losing bone. It was glued back together misaligned and at an incorrect angle.
The pelvis was smashed, perhaps in transit, destroying details that reveal body shape, gait and evolutionary history.
"We have a big dispute with Professor Jacob," says Tony Djubiantono, chief of the archaeology center and co-leader of the team. "We didn't give him permission to do any of these things."
"The equivalent in the world of art would be somebody slashing the Mona Lisa and then trying to fix it with chewing gum," says paleontologist Tim White of the University of California-Berkeley, who was not on the discovery team.

White suggests that a reason for the damage may be inexperience with working with wet fossils, which can be easily damaged by molding.

An interesting note on the possibility of DNA testing:

Jacob allowed human-origins researcher Jean-Jacques Hublin of Germany's Max Plank [sic] Institute to take a small section of hobbit fossil to Germany for genetic analysis. "This is completely unethical," Roberts says. "This is freeloading on our discovery." Hublin did not respond to a request for comment.

Sounding a bit like Kennewick; we can only hope the outcome does not take as long to resolve.

On a side note, seeing an article on paleoanthropology right across the fold from a preview of "American Idol" is definitely a step up from "Hogzilla"....

The Pacific edition of Time also has an article. It's shorter, but has a little extra red meat:

Jacob denies that any damage was done to the bones in his lab - or even that a cast has been made. "(The Australians) blame us for everything," he says. "They think they own the skulls and they own the cave and they think Indonesia is part of Australia. The Indonesian government has regulations about making and selling casts. So you cannot make them easily. You have to follow the rules and the government can intervene if you make something wrong.''

And there is this troubling aspect:

Although no unauthorized copies of the cast have surfaced, Morwood has drafted a letter asserting that the intellectual property rights to the bones, including casts, belong to the Jakarta Center for Archaeology, whose scientists are on his team.

Read that carefully: a scientist is asserting copyright on casts taken by others from a fossil hominid. This is a research team arguing that they and only they (through the institution that sponsors them) have the right to create or release copies and data resulting from observation of an original specimen. In this case, it seems pretty clear that the specimen should not have been molded, because of the high probability of damage. But the right to refuse to sanction a mold (a decision properly made by permit-granting authorities or their delegates) is different from an intellectual property right over the casts.

I think we are steering onto dangerous ground. In this particular case, I think the Australians are boxed into a corner and I am not surprised to see them taking whatever steps they think may work. But this case is not singular, it is merely the most public example of a broad trend.

I have been invited to speak in a symposium at the American Anthropological Association meeting on the ethical issues encompassing fossil and data ownership. To do so, I will be corresponding with both scientists and intellectual property lawyers to arrive at an understanding of both the legal and historical issues at play. The time may be coming when the scientists will no longer be entrusted to write the rules. To many of us that will seem like a sad day for the field, but the fact is that it took many sad days to lead us here.