News
23/07/2013

Archaeologist involved in ‘scientific find of the century’ dies

University of Wollongong (UOW) archaeologist, Professor Mike Morwood will be remembered as a man of integrity, whose passion for his research led to what has been dubbed as ‘the scientific find of the century’.

Professor Morwood, who was instrumental in the discovery of Homo floresiensis, a new species of tiny human excavated on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, died early this morning (23 July 2013) after being diagnosed with terminal cancer just over a year ago.

The discovery of Homo floresiensis (affectionately dubbed ‘Hobbit’), that had survived until relatively recently, rewrote the history books and changed our understanding of human evolution.

Director of the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS) at UOW, Professor Bert Roberts, who worked with Professor Morwood for nearly 20 years, said he will be sorely missed, not only for his contributions to science, but for his unwavering spirit of adventure.

“Mike was a man of supremely high integrity and extremely loyal. His drive and passion for research in Indonesia led to the Hobbit discovery on Flores, where excavations are still continuing.

“Mike was an inspiration to many of the early-career researchers now working in CAS and to a generation of young Indonesian researchers, some of whom now hold high office in Indonesian agencies and others are enrolled here at UOW.”

After receiving his PhD from the Australian National University in 1980, Professor Morwood carried out extensive research on the archaeology of Aboriginal art in the Central Queensland Highlands, Southeast Queensland, Cape York Peninsula and the Kimberley.

These projects emphasised the importance of a landscape approach and holistic context in archaeological explanation. His research in the Kimberley project initiated study of Asian trepang sites along the coast, and how changes in their distribution, context and content of sites reflect changes in the nature of relations between (indigenous) Australian and Asian peoples.

In 2002, Professor Morwood penned the book ‘Visions from the Past: The Archaeology of Australian Aboriginal Art’.

A year later, Professor Morwood led a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers that would uncover the a partial skeleton of a 1 metre tall 30-year-old woman at Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. A further six partial Homo floresiensis skeletons would later be found, in addition to skeletons of megafaunal species – Stegodon (an extinct close relative of modern elephants) and giant tortoise.

Professor Morwood would go on to write ‘The Discovery of the Hobbit: the scientific breakthrough that changed the face of human history’ in 2007 before returning to his research in the Kimberley.

In 2009, he started a project with colleagues from the University of New England and Macquarie University titled ‘Change and continuity: Chronology, archaeology and art in the North Kimberley, Northwest Australia’. This project would investigate the Kimberley region as the likely beachhead for initial peopling of Australia and shed light on fundamental issues in Australian archaeology – When did people first arrive? How did they impact on local habitats and animals? And how did they respond to major changes in climate?

Just two weeks before his death, Professor Morwood was thrilled to learn that his long-time friend and colleague, Professor Bert Roberts, had received an ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship to establish Australia’s first national centre for archaeological science that would continue to answer fundamental questions about human evolution and the research that Professor Morwood had begun a decade earlier in Indonesia.

“Mike lived and breathed his research, and just yesterday was still talking about future plans and projects in his absence”, Professor Roberts said.

“It has been one crowded decade since the Hobbit was excavated in 2003, and the Laureate project is a fitting tribute to Mike’s spirit of adventure and a legacy of his remarkable contributions to enlarging our knowledge of human evolution on the world stage.”

By Elise Pitt

UOW IN THE NEWS 

  • Renowned archaeologist, Professor Mike Morwood, will be remembered as a man of integrity, full of passion for his work.