The NZ scientist who changed archaeology dies

The NZ scientist who changed archaeology dies
Colleagues hail the man who discovered the real "Hobbit"

As scientific legacies go, "discovered a new species of human" is prodigious. But that's only part of what New Zealand-born archaeologist Mike Morwood achieved in a remarkable career.

Professor Morwood, who died yesterday aged 62, led the research team that in 2003 discovered the 18,000 year-old bones of a woman on the Indonesian island of Flores -- and realised they had found something new to science.

They decided that the diminutive skeleton they nicknamed the "Hobbit" represented a previously undiscovered archaic species of human. Not all of their peers were convinced, but by the time they had retrieved the remains of as many as nine of the metre-tall individuals, Morwood was able to famously declare to National Geographic  that homo floresiensis was real:

"Now we can say very confidently that the new evidence confirms this as a new, tiny, unique species of human."

The discovery was the pinnacle of a career that saw Morwood complete his MA in archaeology at the University of Auckland in 1973 before departing for Australia, where he became an expert in rock art, human evolution, and Australian archaeology.

"In the areas he chose to focus he was inevitably a ‘game changer’, one of a rare group of Australian researchers who made an extraordinary contribution to their field," said his colleague, Professor Alistair Paterson, Head of the School of Social Science, University of Western Australia.

Professor Peter Veth described him as "a consummate scholar; a brilliant thinker," and said he produced "radical and new ways of knowing about Australian, South East Asian and indeed global archaeology."

Others spoke of a positive, practical man who paid attention to those around him. Victoria University's Brent Alloway, who worked with Morwood in Flores, said he felt fortunate to have been one of the many young scientists "nurtured and inspired" by him. Morwood had also, he said, believed strongly in the right of the local people in Flores to have sense of their history.

"[And] Mike was particularly good at brushing off the sometimes spiteful controversy that initially surrounded the discovery of the Homo floresiensis."

That discovery continues to ripple through archaeology, as part of a debate that, as the Daily Telegraph's obituary put it overnight, "feeds into a much wider reassessment of the story of how humans emerged. Instead of the linear narrative of successive waves of colonisation out of Africa, ending with the triumph of Homo sapiens, many scientists now see the evolutionary process as one with numerous different twists and turns involving many different species and centres of evolution. The Flores find suggests that rather than being an evolutionary backwater, Asia may have had a larger role in human evolution than previously thought."

Mike Morwood is survived by his wife, Francine and their daughter.