This conversation is with Adam Brumm, an Australian professor of archaeology at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Adam has wide-ranging research interests, but his main focus is on the story of early humans in Island Southeast Asia and the wider Australasian region. Since 2003, he has conducted extensive field research in the Wallacean archipelago of central and eastern Indonesia, the myriad of biogeographically distinct oceanic islands lying between Asia and Australia. Some of his team’s recent findings appear in Nature, PNAS, and Science Advances; highlights include the discovery of Late Pleistocene cave art in Sulawesi and early Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils in central Flores. Adam is a former Australian Research Council Future Fellow and a founding member of Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE).
What are your research interests and your particular area of expertise?
I am interested in all aspects of our evolutionary past, but my particular area of expertise is the early human story in Wallacea, the biogeographically distinct zone of oceanic islands located between the continental landmasses of Asia and Australia-New Guinea. I began my career as a specialist in lithic analysis. Now, however, I mostly ‘just dig holes’, as a colleague said of me rather facetiously. That is, I’m a field director, a primary producer of stone artefacts, fossils, and other empirical data excavated from archaeological sites. In this role I develop and lead major multidisciplinary fieldwork projects in various parts of Indonesia, collaborate with specialists from numerous fields to analyse and date the finds, and spearhead the publication of results. It’s not ‘just digging holes’, though I enjoy doing that.
What originally drew you towards studying human evolution?
I think I’m being honest when I say that I was led to this path by my early interest in how (and why) things began. As a kid I was obsessed with ‘Why’ questions. I was also fascinated by history, but above all I loved thinking about why things are the way they are – how our world came to be as it. As I got older these interests deepened, with a good dose of embarrassing teenage angst thrown in. For example, when I was 14 we had to do a class presentation on a topic of our choice; whereas the other kids all talked about how awesome rugby is, or why Pearl Jam ruled (it was the early ’90s), I gave a fulminating oration that questioned the existence of God. I didn’t think much about human evolution per se until I studied undergraduate anthropology and became enthralled by hunter-gatherers. This spilled over into Palaeolithic archaeology, and, from there, to human evolution studies.
Tell us a bit about your PhD. How did you find your PhD experience? Would you do anything differently if you could do it again?
I did my PhD at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra between 2003 and 2007. My research focused on early Middle Pleistocene stone technology in the So’a Basin of Flores, Indonesia, with a wider consideration of the tool-making behaviour of the Homo floresiensis lineage. I should note, however, that at the very beginning of my PhD experience the only ‘Hobbits’ were in Tolkien’s stories – Homo floresiensis had not yet been discovered.
I had originally intended to do my PhD on early stone technology in Myanmar as part of an ANU team that was applying to do field research there. Just before I was due to move to Canberra to start, however, I accepted an invitation to join Mike Morwood’s excavations at Liang Bua cave in western Flores. So I volunteered for a fortnight on the Liang Bua dig in August 2003 (though I was mostly working on terrace sites outside the cave). Few people in the world had even heard of Liang Bua at this time, or Flores, though that would shortly change. Soon after I returned home, I heard that our Indonesian colleagues who had continued the dig discovered something truly amazing: the partial skeleton of an unknown human species, Homo floresiensis! Swept up in the excitement, I jumped ship to the Flores team where I studied the much older stone artefacts from the So’a Basin. Meanwhile, the Myanmar team from ANU never managed to do any serious fieldwork in that country, so joining the ‘Hobbit’ project, though a treachery on my part, was the best thing I ever did.
I enjoyed aspects of my PhD experience immensely, especially the fieldwork in Flores and the time spent reading quietly in the wonderful libraries at ANU. But a lot of it was a struggle to overcome a general lack of confidence, and the last six months was hell. If I could do it again, I possibly would do a PhD by publication rather than producing a monograph style thesis. My thesis is thicker than an old-fashioned telephone book. Apart from the examiners and me, I don’t think it has been read by anyone. On the other hand, writing this tome was a scholarly rite of passage and I certainly learned a great deal from the process.
After your PhD, what positions have you held and where?
The year before graduation I began applying for fellowships in Australia and overseas. I was fortunate in that I managed to secure a three year fellowship from the Australian Research Council (ARC), as well as a two year post at the University of Cambridge. I was able to defer the start of the former until I had completed the latter position in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (under the stewardship of Professor Graeme Barker). I have since held two more ARC fellowships: an early career research award known as a DECRA, and a Future Fellowship (a mid-career researcher award). For a time I was based at the University of Wollongong with Morwood, who died of cancer in 2013. I am now a professor of archaeology at Griffith University’s Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution.
What current projects are you working on?
I have just received ARC funding to initiate a new project in Sulawesi that is focused on a unique population of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, the ‘Toalean’ people. These foragers appeared rather mysteriously in South Sulawesi around 8000 years ago and vanish from the island about 1500 years ago, not long after Neolithic farmers established themselves in the region.
The Toaleans made distinctive, beautifully crafted stone projectile points with pressure-flaked serrations, and some scholars have even suggested they were long distance seafarers who introduced dingoes to Australia. We have found a new cave with the richest Toalean deposits uncovered thus far. Once we can get back to Indonesia, we will start major excavations there in an effort to throw light on the history and lives of these people. I’m especially interested in exploring the relationship between the Toaleans and the hunter-gatherers who made rock art inside the same caves and shelters at a much earlier time.
How has the COVID19 pandemic affected your work?
We were unable to go into the field in Indonesia in 2020. This year is also a write-off. This has been very frustrating. It has, however, given me more time to catch up on writing. I have also been able to spent so much more time with my family (I have two daughters, aged 8 and 5), as I have not been disappearing into the field for several months each year, and we have experienced intermittent lockdowns (though nothing compared with the UK). This has been wonderful and life changing – for me, and, I hope, for my kids. So it is not all bad. But I will start to get a bit worried if we are unable to make it back into the field next year.
What career achievement are you most proud of?
There are two: first, the discovery of the earliest archaeological evidence for hominins in Flores (and in Wallacea); and second, the discovery, with Max Aubert and Indonesian colleagues, of extremely old rock art on the island of Sulawesi. I am proud of both of these career achievements; not in the least because, for me, they underline the importance both of serendipity – dumb luck – and curiosity-driven research in archaeological discovery.
In 2005, when I was still a PhD student, I was excavating at Mata Menge, an open site in the vast expanse of tropical grasslands and blind gullies that is the So’a Basin. One day, while nursing an appalling hangover (the previous night I had attended a local village ceremony and dutifully consumed all the many palm wine toasts on offer), I wandered off from the dig site and got thoroughly lost. Whilst stumbling about in the sweltering heat, in a bewildered state, I found some heavily patinated stone tools eroding out from a fluvial conglomerate exposed at the base of a gully. Eventually I found my way back to Mata Menge (no one had even noticed I was gone). Thus ended the ‘archaeological survey’ described in the subsequent Nature paper. Soon afterwards I returned to the new site, Wolo Sege, where my excavations revealed stone tools beneath a one-million-year-old ignimbrite deposit. At the time, we thought hominins got to Flores around 840,000 years ago, so the Wolo Sege tools show that the story of ‘Hobbits’ on the island was even older still. I have since tried to make major archaeological discoveries while hungover, but it only worked that one time.
The Sulawesi rock art was first reported by archaeologists in the 1950s. Most authorities assumed that Neolithic people had made these cave paintings, but no had ever tried to date them. In 2014, we published the results of our Uranium-series dating of calcite that had formed on the art, showing that a hand stencil at one cave was at least 39,900 years old, and was thus compatible in age with the earliest cave art in Europe. We have since dated several more ‘ice age’ cave paintings in Sulawesi (and Borneo). Our findings include what seems to be the earliest narrative representation (a hunting scene), dating back at least 44,000 years, and a spectacular painting of a warty pig that is a trifle older at 45,500 years. These are minimum ages, however, as we have only been able to date the calcite growths on top of the rock art rather than the rock art itself, which could be much older. It is not overstating the case to say that these discoveries are seriously challenging – some would say changing – our understanding of when and where the first cave art traditions emerged.
If you could use a time machine, when would you go back to visit and why?
I would go back a million years in order to see how on earth whatever creature it was that gave rise to Homo floresiensis got across the Wallace Line to Flores, and who it was. I would then drop in on the ‘Hobbits’ every hundred millennia or so to see evolution at work on these hominins. I would also like to see how this long island story, as Churchill might have put it, came to an end. I suspect it involved the arrival of our species and it was not pretty.
Why should people be interested in human evolution?
Whenever I’m asked this, I trot out the amnesic patient analogy. Imagine that you woke up in a strange room with no memory of who you are. You are able to talk and walk and read, and do all the other things everyone else can do, but you have no idea where you come from, and you never again come face to face with anyone from your past. Your best option at this point would probably be to start from scratch and build a new life. In this endeavour you may be quite successful. As time went on, however, wouldn’t you want to try to figure out who you really were? Would your new life, however long and fulfilling, truly have meaning if your old self thereafter remained a mystery? Wouldn’t even the most fleeting memories you were able to salvage from the abyss – the face of a loved one, your mother’s name – be worth more to you than anything that came afterwards? I think most people in this situation would be more than merely ‘interested’ in their origins. Indeed, I don’t believe they could ever be at peace until they found out who they were and where they came from.
Similarly, it is imperative for us as a species to try to piece together our evolutionary story as a species. Humanity is in a collective state of amnesia. Our written history only spans the last 5000 years or so. This is a blink of an eye when you consider that the earliest creatures we might call human lived in Africa around 2.5 million years ago, while human-like primates from which we can most likely trace our immediate ancestry date back to 5 million years ago. Despite decades of research, there are still many gaps in our knowledge of the vast time span of human evolutionary history. In fact, the gaps are more like chasms. But future research will reveal findings that will change our understanding of our origins in ways we cannot presently imagine. Homo floresiensis shows us that. That’s why human evolution research is so exciting, and so important for humanity itself: every new scrap of evidence is like a shining memory dredged up from the deep and unfathomable darkness of our past.