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Padar Island, Flores, Indonesia, part of the Wallacea group of islands.

17,000-Year-Old Skulls Discovered On Migration ‘Highway To Oz’


Two 12,000 and 17,000 year old human skulls, smaller than expected, were discovered on what scientists are calling an ancient migration highway to Australia.

A new research paper features a study on the two ancient skulls, which were discovered at the Tron Bon Lei site on Alor Island in Indonesia, has been published by a team of researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) in the Journal of Human Evolution. Essentially, this study offers new insights into ancient human migration routes through Southeast Asia to Australia, but it also unveils a host of new avenues of thinking.

The two small human skulls were dated to between 12,000 and 17,000 years old and lead researcher, Dr. Sofía Samper Carro, wrote in the paper that these “are the oldest human remains ever found in Wallacea – the islands between Java, Papua New Guinea, and Australia”. Evolution theorists and anthropologists already knew that modern humans had reached Timor and Sulawesi over 40,000 years ago, but these two skulls are “the first fossil evidence of modern human presence in Wallacea,” according to Dr. Samper Carro in the paper.

Views of the skulls discovered. (ANU / Fair Use)

Views of the skulls discovered. (ANU / Fair Use)

The Skulls Show an Ancient Highway To Oz

The scientists suggest that the Alor region might have once served as sort of ancient ‘highway’ that filtered people moving among these islands towards their ultimate destination - Australia. And while the discovery of an ancient human migration route is fascinating, this wasn’t the most interesting aspect of the research, for they also noted the two skulls were “exceptionally small” which raised interesting new questions, with BIG answers.

Wallacea, the group of islands, within the red area, is a biogeographical designation for a group of mainly Indonesian islands separated by deep-water straits from the Asian and Australian continental shelves. The Weber Line is in blue. (JWB / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Wallacea, the group of islands, within the red area, is a biogeographical designation for a group of mainly Indonesian islands separated by deep-water straits from the Asian and Australian continental shelves. The Weber Line is in blue. (JWB / CC BY-SA 4.0)

In an article published by the Australian National University Dr. Samper Carro is quoted saying the size of the skulls are “different than what you find in Australia and other parts of mainland Southeast Asia during the same period,” - where humans generally have larger skulls. The reason given for this is the ‘island effect’, a phenomena which occurs when humans and other large mammals live on islands lacking sufficient food resources which results in predators, like humans, getting smaller with each generation while small mammals progressively increase in size.

Map of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia – Alor, where the skulls were discovered, is on the right side of the map. (OrgeBot / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Map of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia – Alor, where the skulls were discovered, is on the right side of the map. (OrgeBot / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Evidence Of Prehistoric Burial Rituals Found with Skulls

The scientists reported discovering “huge numbers of fish bones” at the Tron Bon Lei site which they see as an ‘important clue’ to the mystery of the small skulls. Gaps in the archaeological record at the site suggests a lack of varied food stuffs to sustain a healthy culture and it is suspected that the people moved from the island and lived somewhere else for a period of time. Alternatively, the scientists are considering that they may have been forced to move through extreme environmental conditions and the researchers say more excavations will determine why exactly the people relocated.

One of the small skulls discovered on Alor had been buried with fishhooks and grave ornaments which suggests the people held ritual beliefs associated with the afterlife and Dr. Samper Carro said in the paper that burial traditions are a good example of “the mobility of humans and ideas” and that “new people come with new traditions”.

Detail of human remains in situ at Tron Bon Lei in Test Pit C. Source: ANU / Fair Use.

Detail of human remains in situ at Tron Bon Lei in Test Pit C. Source: ANU / Fair Use.

Ancient humans traveled in packs and with them came their local ancestral cultural traditions which were passed from one generation to the next. Dr. Samper Carro sees “reflected in the way these people buried their loved ones” opportunities to “build on long-held ideas about human migration”.

The Mystery Of The First Africa-Australia Migrations

The earliest known evidence of human occupation in Australia was discovered at a rock shelter in the Northern Territory dating to around 53,000 years BC and the oldest human fossils are about 10,000 years younger. The big question is whether modern humans left Africa once and radiated around the globe or if multiple waves left the continent, and this is still debated among anthropologists.

Until 2011, the most widely accepted theory was that all modern humans came from a single ‘out-of-Africa’ migration into Europe and spreading across Asia and finally reaching Australia. Thus, according to this model, the first humans in Australia had Asian origins that had separated from the ancestors of European people.

But in 2011, according to this National Geographic article, applying modern gene sequencing techniques, the DNA from the hair of a young Aboriginal man was compared with the genomes of people living in Asia, Europe, and Africa, and the scientists discovered that “Aboriginal Australians are more closely related to Africans than they are to modern Asians and Europeans”.

Nambassa 1981 Arnhemland and Torrest Strait dance company. (Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry / CC BY SA 3.0)

This astounding observation suggested multiple migration waves into Eastern Asia and that today’s Aboriginal Australians descend from a wave that must have left Africa about 70,000 years ago, long before the waves from which came the ancestors of Asians and Europeans.

What this new study of human remains from Tron Bon Lei illustrates is the presence of a population ‘osteometrically distinct’ from Late Pleistocene Sunda and Sahul AMH, and more morphometrically similar to Holocene populations in the Lesser Sundas, which according to the paper “may represent the remains of a population originally from Sunda whose Lesser Sunda Island descendants survived into the Holocene”.

Sundaland is a biogeographical region of Southeastern Asia corresponding to a larger landmass that was exposed throughout the last 2.6 million years during periods when sea levels were lower. (Chumwa / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sundaland is a biogeographical region of Southeastern Asia corresponding to a larger landmass that was exposed throughout the last 2.6 million years during periods when sea levels were lower. (Chumwa / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top image: Padar Island, Flores, Indonesia, part of the Wallacea group of islands.            Source: Thrithot / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie



Gary Moran's picture

Interesting speculation regarding the small size of skulls, relating to diet rather than possible relation to Floriensis. OR, are those skulls mostly comparable to Sapiens?

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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