Noted Australian archeologist, Professor Mike Morwood, died at the age of 62. Celebrated for his research into Aboriginal rock art, he was famously credited with the discovery of a pre-human species on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.
Morwood is survived by his wife Fran, his daughter and grandchildren. He died after a battle with cancer.
A world-renowned scholar, Morwood was described as a tireless teacher and supporter of media projects aimed at bringing the field of archeology to the general public. His passion for training PhD students had paid off with many of them now serving in high-level posts in academic and government posts in Australia and beyond.
His recent work studying rock art in Western Australia is lesser known compared to his most-famous find.
Morwood discovered “Flo”, the three-and-a-half foot tall skeleton of a female, at the bottom of a hole in a limestone cave. Newly classified as Homo floresiensis, the initial specimen became known by its nickname – the “hobbit” – after the fictional race prominently featured in J.R.R. Tolkien's novel of the same name.
The skeleton was radiocarbon-dated to be about 18, 000 years old. The race was a contemporary of modern man and would have likely had contact with humans along the Indonesian archipelago. Morwood had been researching another cousin of mankind, Homo erectus, at the time of his discovery.
Professor Bert Roberts, a colleague of Morwood, said the discovery was an amazing achievement. “It was the adventure of a lifetime for Mike.”
“I'm going to need a drink to think about this,” Morwood was recalled as saying after walking away from initial lab work on the specimen.
The controversy surrounding the find threatened to turn the narrative of human evolution on its head. Critics like Professor Peter Obendorf, of Melbourne's RMIT University, pointed out that cretinism was likely the culprit to explain the dwarf-like features of the skeleton, caused by a lack of iodine in the stomach.
"Compared to the other theory that it's a new species, (iodine deficiency) really does look a better explanation,” Obendorf concluded.
But Morwood continued his research into Homo floresiensis and found an additional six partial skeletons. Further research and tests up through 2013 have all come back in support of a new species as opposed to a diseased modern human, thus far validating Morwood's groundbreaking work.