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Academics debate implications of 'hobbit' dis -

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Academics debate implications of 'hobbit' discovery

Reporter: Tony Jones

TONY JONES: Joining me now to dig deeper into the issue is hobbit sceptic Professor Maciej
Henneberg from the University of Adelaide and here in our Sydney studios key hobbit team member
Professor Richard Roberts from the University of Wollongong. Thanks to both of you for joining us.


TONY JONES: Richard Roberts, can I start with you. Was it ethical for your Australian critics to go
and examine the hobbit bones after they had been effectively taken hostage by Professor Jacob?

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS (UNIVERSITY OF WOLLONGONG): I think the ethical question is it has two sides.
Most of us don't have any complaint with them looking at the material we'd already described in
2003 but we do have objections to looking at material that we had collected ourselves in 2004 but
hadn't yet had the chance to study in detail because Professor Jacob had smuggled it away to
Jakarta before we'd even had a chance to look at it ourselves.

TONY JONES: One senior member of your team, Peter Brown, says Professor Henneberg, who is now
sitting in Adelaide, should be severely censured by his own university. Do you agree?

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: If there's an ethical issue and Adelaide feels that this is something they
ought to address, then certainly Adelaide should carry out its own functions. And if he did look at
a lot of material and intensely describe it before we've had a chance to do so, I do feel there's a
serious breach of ethical behaviour.

TONY JONES: Maciej Henneberg, do you understand why you're fellow scientists are so upset by what
you did?

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: No, I don't because they have no indication whatsoever that I actually
described or studied any material that has not yet been described by others. Plus I was invited by
Professor Teaki Jacob, who is an Indonesian, and we respect and without any reservation the right
to Aboriginal Australians to make decisions about skeletons of Aboriginal Australians excavated
here and I respect without reservation decisions of Indonesians about skeletons excavated on
Indonesian soil.

TONY JONES: Richard Roberts, answer that point, if you can, the suggestion here that the indigenous
Professor Jacob is the one who should make all the decisions.

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: That sounds fine on the face of it but, unfortunately, Professor Jacob has
got no authority to let other people look at this material. He was only loaned it under a great
deal of pressure he exerted on the true owner of the material in Jakarta and suddenly when
Professor Jacob got it he's letting anyone in to look at it, any of his mates can come and have a
look at it. But he's not the rightful owner of the material so it really doesn't matter whether
Professor Jacob's given Professor Henneberg permission or not, he's not the right person to be
giving permission.

TONY JONES: Professor Henneberg, answer that point, if you will. It's not the first time your
ethics have been questioned over this. Professor Brown from the hobbit team says what you did was
grossly improper and runs contrary to all standard ethics of scientific behaviour. These are pretty
stern sort of criticisms.

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: Well, they may be. I'm an anthropologist practising for 33 years and I have
done a lot of studies and I've never yet been in a situation of being accused of any improper
behaviour and I think I always conducted myself ethically and, in this case, I responded to
Professor Jacob's invitation that he extended to me based on quite legal grounds of the memorandum
of understanding between the Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta and the University of New England
indeed where Professor Brown works, and this memorandum of understanding allows each of the parties
to the memorandum to consult any other third party they wish, and I consider that Professor Jacob
invited me on those grounds. But I don't think that we should discuss, neither of us being a
lawyer, we should discuss any fine legal points here. The argument is about scientific facts and
scientific interpretation.

TONY JONES: I'm going to come to that in some detail in a moment but I want to ask you one more
question on this subject, though. Did you not think there was something dubious about the fact that
Professor Jacob locked the bones away from very people who discovered them?

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: I never thought that he actually locked the bones away from the people who
discovered them. To the contrary, Professor Jacob before allowed Professor Morwood to take samples
from the bones that Professor Jacob discovered. So I don't know where this accusation is actually
coming from, and I must add that, while I was in Jakarta, Professor Robert Eckhart from the
Pennsylvania State University visited Professor Jacob and was allowed to have a look at the
material and Professor Eckhart was a person who actually approached Professor Jacob for permission
and he was given this permission. So I don't think that Professor Jacob was not willing to give
permission to anyone to look at the material.

TONY JONES: Richard Roberts, before we move on, a quick response to that. It looks like people from
all over the world have been flying to Jakarta at the invitation of Professor Jacob.

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: Two things, firstly Professor Henneberg is wrong about the memorandum of
understanding. Both parties have to agree to allowing a third party to look at it, not just one
party. Therefore, that one is incorrect. Second one - the people who have looked at the material at
Professor Jacob's invitation have all been people who agree with Professor Jacob's position in
terms of human evolution. People from another point of view, which in fact is the majority point of
view, have not yet seen the specimen themselves apart from ourselves, and we've not been allowed to
look at it because Professor Jacob hung on it and hung onto it and hung onto it, each time pushing
back the deadline, until he was only forced to return it by his political masters who actually put
a great deal of pressure on him to return it to us immediately, and that's the only reason it
happened, otherwise they would still be over there in Yogyakarta now.

TONY JONES: I want to drawn a line under that for a minute, if I can. I want you to explain for us
- we're going to have a big press conference in Jakarta and also in Florida in the United States
tomorrow on the results of an endocast. Can you explain for us the significance of this endocast,
this model or moulding of the brain of the hobbit?

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: I can only say a little bit because it's under a strict embargo by 'Science'
magazine for tomorrow but all I can say is that the results of that study will substantially
bolster our case and substantially weaken Professor Henneberg's in terms of whether it's
microcephalic individual or not. And there's lots of other implications stemming from it I would
like to discuss but I can't at this particular point in time.

TONY JONES: I appreciate there's an embargo on the details but in general terms what's happened
here is there's been a study, it appears, of a moulding of the hobbit's brain comparing it to the
brain of diseased people.

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: That's right. It's compared it to 3 million-year-old people who used to live
in Africa, modern human people, modern human people with a medical condition called microcephaly as
well as pygmy modern people, Homo erectus - a whole range of different sorts of human brains, and
the outcome is certainly in our favour in that comparison as opposed to Professor Henneberg.

TONY JONES: Maciej Henneberg, are you prepared to reconsider your position on the basis of the
endocast results if they do indeed show that the brain of the hobbit is not a diseased brain as you
seem to be suggesting it is?

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: I'm not, and the reason is that 'Science', who embargoed the paper, sent me
the paper - and yet again I can't reveal much about its contents besides saying that Professor
Roberts is incorrect saying they compared the brain to brains of microcephalics. They compared it
to one single brain of a person who has the kind of microcephaly that we never suggested the LB1,
the skeleton in question, ever had. So it's like comparing a patient with tuberculosis to a patient
with bronchitis or pneumonia. I don't think it bolsters their case in any way. Yet again we are
under embargo so we can't reveal any details of it. But I provided my comments to 'Science'.

TONY JONES: Let's speak about your other objections or your other views about why this skull and
the other bones are not the bones of a new species.

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: Well, I have now had an opportunity to study the skeleton. I must add that,
when I did any discoveries on skeletal material, I welcomed my colleagues to come and have a look,
especially those colleagues who had a different view because I thought that when they come and look
at the original material they can change their minds, and I'm talking only about looking at the
bones that were already described. Those bones clearly indicate that the person suffered from a
growth anomaly and this growth anomaly caused anomalous, very slow or retarded growth of the brain.
Yet again I can't go to the details of the study of the endocast but, once it appears, I am very
happy to elaborate on the details of it.

TONY JONES: Richard Roberts, I know you know some of Professor Henneberg's other criticisms. He is
suggesting that, in spite of what you're saying - that it's the brain of a normal - not normal, but
the brain of a hobbit, a new species of human, but a normal brain, not a diseased brain - how do
you answer the claims that it is in fact diseased without referring to the endocast?

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: Professor Henneberg, in a paper which I've seen in a journal, not a
referee's paper but one where he expresses a point of view, pointed out some features that he
believed to be that of a microcephalic individual. Peter Brown, our expert paleoanthropologist,
pointed out in reply that, while individual features such as a very small brain, such as certain
things like even perhaps a slightly receding chin or sloping forehead, are consistent with a
microcephalic individual, lots of details are not consistent. In fact, they've got nothing like
that in microcephalic individuals ever reported. So, when you consider the whole package of
features that we found in this skeleton, and not just facial features but also the post-cranial
features, the rest of the body, it has a very flared pelvis and arms that come down almost to the
knees - these are not conditions that occur with microcephalic individuals. So, when you consider
the whole overall anatomy of this person, it doesn't wrap up into a microcephalic person.

TONY JONES: Is the problem here there's only one skull? I know there's a part of another skull - I
think it's the mandible -

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: That's right. We've got two lower jaws, and they're both very, very similar
to each other which again argues against the fact that we've now got two microcephalic individuals
and we've got the remains of eight individuals now from that cave, so if they're all equally small,
which they seem to be, then if Professor Henneberg is right we've found eight microcephalic
individuals and it's an extremely rare disease and to find eight of that antiquity would be quite a
remarkable find.

TONY JONES: Professor Henneberg, you couldn't possibly have a nest of diseased individuals in this
cave, could you, so how do you answer that?

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: We don't. There is only one skull. The so-called seven or eight, they seem
to be multiplying now in the discussions, individuals are represented by mostly a single bone or a
little bone fragment, like a fragment of a Spinous process of a vertebrae. And those have nothing
to do with the brain size. The only thing they indicate is small body size of local population. But
local populations until today people living within the radius of a few kilometres from the cave as
we speak are of very small body size. So that's not a proof of anything at all. And there's only
one - and I stress it - one brain case and actually one face attached to it, and this face is
fitting into modern human range of sizes and has a lot of features Australian and Indonesian people
who, yet again, live in Flores and islands to the east of Flores until today.

TONY JONES: But, according to your argument, it has to be one of those modern people and a diseased
modern person, and what Richard Roberts is saying is there's no evidence of disease in the skull.

PROF. MACIEF HENNEBERG: In what skull? In the skull - and this is something that authors of the
original paper, and actually Professor Roberts was not the author of the original paper about the
skeleton, the authors of the original paper failed to mention a severe asymmetry of both the brain
case and the face of that individual, and this asymmetry clearly indicates a pathological
condition. It's not normal to have this amount of asymmetry in the face. When we come to long
bones, they are actually unusually wide in relation to their rather short length and, yet again,
this is indicative of abnormal growth, not of growth that is compatible with a new species. Let me
finally straight out say that we are not discussing fossils at all. Neither the skeleton LB1 or any
comparing remaining bones, but we didn't really study them, neither of those are fossilised.
They're as fresh bones as those that are excavated - I have excavated several thousands of them -
from cemeteries and burial grounds that are a few thousand to several hundred years old. This is
not a fossil.

TONY JONES: I would like to get Richard Roberts to reply. There's a series of things there. Start
with the end, if you like, the fossilised issue. If they're meant to be as old as you say,
shouldn't they be fossilised?

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: Complete furphy. Preservation is a geological issue and the particulars of
preservation in this case are a wet, damp cave environment can keep things soft for a very long
time. It certainly isn't fossilised in terms of minerals getting replaced in the original bone but
it's certainly an extremely old skeleton, about 18,000 years old. The fact that it's not completely
mineral replaced is neither here nor there. It's a complete red herring.

TONY JONES: What about the other issues that Professor Henneberg just cited? A whole series of

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: He talked about a slightly deformed skull. Of course we found this skeleton
six metres underground. A cubic metre of sediment weights 2.5 tonnes - you'd feel pretty squashed
too if you were stuck under six metres of sediment. So you're going to expect some amount of
crushing of the original skeleton when it's that deep underground. Then he mentioned - there was a
point that followed from that one but I can't quite remember what it was now.

TONY JONES: We have to almost wind up. There's an awful lot of detail to go through. I would just
like to ask both of you a general question - how do we get to such a position of deep mutual
mistrust when a group of Australian and Indonesian scientists and a series of referees have all
agreed with this paper that appeared in 'Science'? Professor Henneberg?

PROF. MACIEJ HENNEBERG: Referees can only assess what authors wrote in the paper. Referees don't
get to see original finds. Referees read what authors write in the paper. I repeat this. And
authors in this case failed to describe a number of features of the skeleton that are actually
important for a diagnosis. So so much for referees. So we can't blame referees or we can't actually
say that referees must agree. That's probably all I have to say. Go and have a look at the original
skeleton and study all its features and then we can debate details, but I can't debate them with
Professor Roberts because he is not a skeletal biologist.

TONY JONES: One of the difficulties in doing what Professor Henneberg said from the very beginning
is Professor Jacob locked the bones away.

PROF. RICHARD ROBERTS: That's right. What he was saying about the fact that referees never had a
chance to look at the skeletal material, it should be said that Professor Henneberg, three days
after we published our paper, was quite happy to write himself in the Adelaide 'Sunday Mail' what
he thought about it without having seen a specimen himself and he had already made his mind up. All
he's done by going to Yogyakarta is made his mind up further. It was always a microcephalic to him.
No amount of data will change his mind on that subject.

TONY JONES: And I don't think we're going to settle the debate at this time, but we do thank you
both for being there to have it on Lateline. Thank you very much, Professor Maciej Henneberg, in
Adelaide and, Professor Richard Roberts, here in Sydney.