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Michael John Morwood

22 October 1950 – 23 July 2013

Appreciation by
Claire Smith and Andrew Wilkinson

Mike Morwood (centre) in the field in Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Mike Morwood (centre) in the field in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Professor Michael (Mike) John Morwood died on 23 July 2013 in Darwin, Australia, surrounded by his family. Though he had been ill for some time, his death was unexpected. Mike Morwood was one of the leading archaeologists of his time. While he will be remembered primarily for his high-profile discovery of a new species, Homo floresiensis in the cave of Liang Bua, on the island of Flores, Indonesia, he also made world-class contributions to rock art research and to regional studies in northern Australia.

The majority of Mike Morwood's research was undertaken while he was a member of staff at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia. His final post was as Professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Studies, University of Wollongong, also in Australia. At the time of his death, he was an Adjunct Professorial Fellow at several universities, including Padjadrang University, Bandung, Indonesia. His research interests focused on the archaeology of Southeast Asia and Australia, particularly the origins of modern humans, early hominin evolution and migrations, rock art, ethno-archaeology and Southeast Asian biogeography. In 2003, he was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Mike Morwood was born on 22 October 1950 in Auckland, New Zealand. He was awarded a BA in Archaeology from Auckland University in 1973 and in 1972 he received the Anthropology Prize for academic excellence from Auckland University's Department of Anthropology. After gaining his MA in 1974, in 1976 he commenced further graduate studies at the Australian National University, in Canberra, Australia. He received his PhD in 1980 on the basis of a ground-breaking thesis titled 'Art and stone: towards a prehistory of central-western Queensland' which co-analysed excavated and rock art data to produce a holistic regional sequence for the prehistory of central-western Queensland.

Mike Morwood's vision was always 'big picture'. His career is characterised by large scale, regional projects in northern Australia and Indonesia, developed through multi-disciplinary teams of researchers. Mike's experience in directing large-scale projects ensured the success of collaborative projects between local government agencies, research centres and interdisciplinary organisations, both in Australia and Indonesia. These collaborative projects provided new data and interpretations on long-term changes in fauna, climate, local environments, human activities and their interactions, in both Australian and Indonesia.

Mike's research in Cape York, Queensland during the 1990s produced the volume, Quinkan prehistory: the archaeology of Aboriginal art in S.E. Cape York Peninsula (Morwood & Hobbs 1995), which documented the early occupation of the region at 32 000 years ago. This was one of the most comprehensive publications on site excavations undertaken in Australia. He had an ongoing interest in the rock art of the Kimberley region of Western Australia (Watchman et al. 1997; Morwood & Hobbs 2000; Ward et al. 2001) and at the time of his death he was actively involved in research into environmental and cultural change in this region.

During the 1980s and 1990s Mike Morwood was a major force in establishing rock art research as a legitimate form of scientific enquiry in Australian archaeology. His approach here was to integrate excavated and rock art evidence to produce a rounded interpretation of the past (Morwood & Hobbs 2000) and to draw upon relevant ethnographic understandings of Indigenous art (Morwood & Hobbs 1992). In 2002 he published the seminal textbook Visions from the past: the archaeology of Australian Aboriginal art (Morwood 2002). In 1992 he was elected President of the Australian Rock Art Research Association, a position he held until 2000.

In the early 1990s Mike Morwood's research focus moved to Southeast Asia. After preliminary trips to India and Indonesia, he decided to focus on Indonesia's place in the migration of modern humans. Following a hunch derived from his reading of the early work of Eugene Dubois, Morwood put together a genuinely collaborative team of Indonesian and Australian researchers to excavate sites with potential for information on human migrations from Indonesia to Australia. In 2003 his excavation team discovered Homo floresiensis, a small species of hominin that prompted reassessment of the fundamental tenets of palaeoanthropology in relation to the role of Asia in early hominin evolution (Morwood & van Oosterzee 2007). In comparison to anatomically modern humans Homo floresiensis was tiny, around three feet tall and with a skull around the size of a large orange. Consequently, this species was given the nickname of the 'Hobbit', after the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit.

Mike Morwood's multi-national and inter-disciplinary research projects in Indonesia focused on the interactions between human activity, the local environment, climates and island faunas. The implications of his research for island biogeography and evolution span extended periods of time. Morwood's research produced extraordinary results, quite apart from the discovery of Homo floresiensis. His data pushed back the antiquity of hominin occupation of the island of Flores to at least 1.1 million years BP in the Soa Basin (Brumm et al. 2010) and established that modern humans were in the Atambua Basin of West Timor by around 100 000 BP, coinciding with the local disappearance of Stegodon, a giant tortoise and the Komodo dragon. His research programmes pioneered new approaches to data recovery in excavations in Southeast Asia, including the use of industrial-standard shoring for deep trenches, wet-sieving of excavated deposits and the deployment of intelligent database systems. Morwood's methodological innovations and research finds changed how excavations are conducted in Indonesia and other parts of Asia.

Mike Morwood was a brilliant teacher and mentor. His vision and enthusiasm inspired a raft of high-achieving students who went forth to occupy key positions in universities, consulting businesses and government agencies in Australia and Indonesia. Mike encouraged his students and colleagues to aim high and to achieve their best. One of his finest qualities was that he was frank in his critiques. He was disparaging of research that did not have clear and ambitious goals, and labelled too much introspection as 'navel gazing'. However, he was very conscious that his own work helped the local communities with whom he worked. Training and mentoring has been integral to all of his research projects. For example, over 200 people participated in his Cape York research, and his research in Indonesia significantly developed archaeological skills and capacity in that country.

Mike Morwood was a leader in communicating scientific data to the public. His explorations in remote and rugged terrain provided his public image with some of the mystique of Indiana Jones. He used his high profile discoveries to promote public understanding of archaeology and of science generally. As part of the community outreach programmes for his Indonesian research Mike negotiated agreements for visits by Indonesian, French, Japanese, Australian and American film crews. Mike was a powerful and accomplished public speaker.

It is a mark of Mike Morwood's standing as a scholar that it is impossible to write of his life without referring to publications that are seminal works in our understandings of archaeology and human evolution. The discovery of Homo floresiensis has had a major and permanent impact on the disciplines of archaeology and palaeoanthropology and on models for early hominin dispersals, and Mike will be remembered above all for this find. As he stated in an email on 4 March, 2013 "[It's] not every day that you get [an] opportunity to name a new hominin species".

While a defining achievement of Morwood's is one of most remarkable discoveries in palaeoanthropology, his legacy extends well beyond this. It is grounded also in rigorously researched multi-disciplinary regional studies, in the integration of rock art studies into mainstream archaeological discourse and in his influence on students and colleagues who miss him greatly. He would be bemused by the tributes being published for him worldwide. These tributes, however, are testament not only to a distinguished career but also to a passionate and intellectually generous scholar.

Mike Morwood is survived by his first wife, Kath, their daughter, Catherine and two grandsons, and by his second wife, Francelina. Jarla, his daughter from Penny Jordan, passed away in December 2011.