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Campus News : October 2011
6 Campus News October 2011 University of Wollongong www.uow.edu.au FOCUS ON Ateam of archaeologists from the University of Wollongong recently returned from a dig on the Indonesian island of Flores seeking to uncover fossil evidence of the early ancestors of the mysterious Flores "Hobbits". The 2003 discovery of the remains of a previously unknown species of small hominins, Homo floresiensis -- the "Hobbit" -- in Liang Bua Cave in western Flores, led to major controversy over the origin of these tiny cave dwellers. One theory is that Hobbits descended from Homo erectus, which became stranded on the island a million years ago and subsequently reduced in size. A more contentious notion, however, is that Hobbits evolved from a more primitive and currently unknown group of diminutive hominins, that arrived on Flores at a much earlier point in time. "Whichever theory is correct, revealing the ancestry of the Hobbit will have profound implications for our understanding of early human evolution and migration in Asia and further afield," said Dr Adam Brumm, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UOW's Centre for Archaeological Science. With these problems in mind, the original discovery team has initiated a new project on Flores to recover fossil evidence of Hobbit ancestors. Their focus has shifted from Liang Bua -- which has a maximum age of 95,000 years, and thus is too young to register the arrival of hominins on the island -- to much older localities in the So'a Basin, 50km to the east. Their previous digs in the basin unearthed fossils of an extinct elephant (Stegodon), and other fauna, dated to between one million and 650,000 years ago. Hundreds of stone implements, clear Search for Hobbit ancestors It reads like the archetypal plot from a superhero comic book - a mother cries outside a burning building, her small child lost inside with no way for rescuers to find the child. Then Superman swoops in and, using his x-ray vision, saves the youngster from a fiery death. While military and search and rescue teams have long wished for such x-ray vision, the work of Professor Abdesselam (Salim) Bouzerdoum on imaging systems allowing people to see through walls may soon place this dream within reach. Professor Bouzerdoum, from UOW's School of Electrical, Computer and Telecommunications Engineering, is leading the way in developing through-the-wall radar imaging (TWRI) systems that can "see" objects behind walls, doors and other opaque materials. For his research, which has a wide range of military, security and search and rescue applications, Professor Bouzerdoum has won the 2011 Eureka Prize ($10,000) for Outstanding Science in Support of Defence or National Security. The prize is part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the most prestigious awards in Australian science. The winners were announced in September at an event at Sydney's Hordern Pavilion for the country's most inspired minds, with the ceremony broadcast live on ABC-TV. The Eurekas, as they are fondly known, have become the most coveted science awards in this country. Every scientist knows a "eureka" moment comes after decades of singular dedication, deep inquiry and rich collaboration. Receiving an Australian Museum Eureka Prize is regarded as a Surveillance technology Salim's 'Eureka' moment pinnacle achievement for any Australian scientist. "Developing a reliable through-the-wall surveillance capability will prove invaluable to law enforcement, search and rescue, security and counter-terrorism agencies," Australian Museum Director Frank Howarth said. "The work of Professor Bouzerdoum has removed many of the technical challenges that have stopped these 'x-ray' systems from becoming a reality and his group is one of the few worldwide with the capacity to lead this research into the future." Over the past five years Professor Bouzerdoum's research has transformed the technology required to provide reliable see-through-wall imaging, notably through his innovative work to reduce interference evidence of humans, were also found, but no fossils of the early tool-makers. Given the age of the So'a localities, a single tooth or other diagnostic hominin fossil could shed crucial light on the origin of Homo floresiensis. This is the primary goal of the new project, funded by a five-year (2010-2015) grant from the Australian Research Council, and led by Professor Mike Morwood, Dr Brumm and Dr Gert van den Bergh from UOW's Centre for Archaeological Science in from wall reflections. This is considered a major breakthrough in the field because many existing image formation techniques require a prior knowledge of the scene being examined, in order that so-called background clutter can be removed -- something which is not feasible in real-life situations. BG collaboration with paleontologists from the Geological Survey Institute of Indonesia. The team returned in August from three months of fieldwork in the So'a Basin. Over the course of the season they excavated one site, Mata Menge, dated between 880,000 and 800,000 years old. The team first used bulldozers to clear a 2000m2 area of topsoil to expose the fossil layers. About 15 scientists working with 130 local people then painstakingly dug a series of trenches in cement-like deposits, using only hammers and chisels, in search of buried fossils. The trenches uncovered a surface area of 380m2 and yielded an extraordinary collection of 3000 fossils and 1500 stone artefacts, three times the amount of finds than the previous six field seasons at Mata Menge combined. Among this rich haul were a 2.5m long Stegodon tusk, the largest known from Flores, rare skull pieces from Komodo dragons, even rarer bird and amphibian remains, and abundant evidence for crocodiles and giant rats. The fossils of early hominins, however, proved elusive. Nonetheless, the team is confident that their efforts will eventually be rewarded. CN Professor Abdesselam (Salim) Bouzerdoum (From left): Dr Gert van den Bergh, Dr Adam Brumm and Professor Mike Morwood at the Mata Menge dig-site in the So'a Basin of Flores, Indonesia. Photo: Kerrie Grant.