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Mon, Nov 08, 2004 - Page 12 News List

`Hobbits' boost tourism figures

NEW DESTINATION Reports of Hobbit-like creatures and the discovery of bones of a man-like species on the Flores island have sparked tourists' interest in the area


The discovery of remains of a tiny human closely related to man on the remote Indonesian island of Flores and tales of Hobbit-like creatures who still roam its jungles have triggered an influx of visitors in search of a fabled lost world.

Palaeontologists last week said they had exhumed the bones of a previously unknown species, Homo flores-iensis, from a cave near the village of Liang Bua, a revelation which has shaken the evolutionary tree and the science community.

The find, by researchers speculating that the tiny humans match tales of gluttonous little folk seen in the island's uncharted forests, has fired the imagination of visitors willing to make the arduous trek to what they hope will be a real-life Jurassic Park.

Canny local tour operators have already posted a package deal on the Internet, offering a five-day expedition to the village Liang Bua from the popular resort island of Bali -- a trip with a price tag of US$570.

But reaching the huge limestone caves, which lie in the heart of the densely vegetated island towards the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, is no holiday.

From Bali or the neighboring island of Sumbawa, the Flores port of Labuan Bajo can only be reached by a small propeller plane or a boat which skirts the volcanic island of Komodo, the eponymous home of giant "dragon" lizards.

Then follows a half-day journey along narrow and sinuous roads through lush forests to the central town of Ruteng, from where a bumpy ride over a cratered 14km track reaches Liang Bua.

The inhabitants of this village bordered by rice fields have rarely encountered foreigners over the past half century, apart from Dutch and Portuguese missionaries and a few mainly Australian scientists.

However, this is beginning to change with the arrival first of TV crews and now sightseers.

"There has already been a German tourist here," said Agustinus Manga, who has been charged by his village with the task of guarding the cave after the departure of the archaeologists.

Happy to see his pale-faced visitors, he makes them sign a slim gold book.

According to researchers, Flores man lived here 18,000 years ago, a relatively short time ago in the history of man's development.

From the female skeleton discovered, scientists concluded the homonid stood one meter tall and had a brain the size of a chimpanzee. Tools discovered in the cave suggest the dwarf could cut stone and drive off prehistoric elephants.

The species, which researchers say evolved from the larger Homo erectus in an environment where being small was an advantage, appears to have been wiped out by a volcanic eruption 12,000 years ago.

Though there have been reports of a hairy little people seen regularly up until Dutch settlers arrived in the 19th century, few residents in Liang Bua seem to have heard of these creatures.

Ricus Bandar, a 60-year-old villager, said he had no memory of tales of hirsute bipeds wandering through the jungles, but reflecting the island's predominately Christian faith, he adds that "according to the Bible, Noah's Ark was grounded here."

The theory that some of the dwarf species may have survived was also met with skepticism from the head of the police post in the town of Ruteng.

But Timbul Marselinus, the tourism chief in this sleepy backwater, has dreams of grandeur, predicting both the fossil discovery and the mysterious jungle legends will put his town on the map.

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