Sulawesi Discoveries: Earliest Human Occupation Pushed Back 60,000 Years and Some of the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World
New research on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi shows the possible presence of an archaic species of hominins there dating back more than 100,000 years—at least 60,000 years earlier than the island is thought to have been inhabited by modern humans. Who these ancient people were or what they looked like are unknown because none of their fossils has been discovered.
More than 10 years ago, news of the discovery of fossils of a tiny archaic human species, Homo floresiensis, that lived on the nearby island of Flores piqued the imagination and delight of people around the world. People compared the species, which was about 1 meter (3 feet) tall and lived 18,000 to 95,000 years ago, to the Hobbits imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings.
Cast of a Homo floresiensis (“Hobbit”) skull. The Homo floresiensis skull contained a brain about the size of a grapefruit. (Ryan Somma/CC BY SA 2.0)
The authors of a new paper (abstract) in the journal Nature say that they expect that fossils of pre-modern humans may be found someday on Sulawesi. The lead researcher, Gerrit van den Bergh, told National Geographic that the tools his team studied, some of which were hammered into shape, may have been made by Homo erectus or even Homo floresiensis. Homo erectus people were on nearby islands 1.5 million years ago.
Dr. van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong’s Center for Archaeological Science, was on the same research team that found the Homo floresiensis fossils on Flores. The latest excavations were done at a site called Talepu in the southwest arm of Sulawesi, where the team dug up stone tools and animal teeth.
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“Sulawesi, like Flores, could have been a natural laboratory for human evolution under isolated conditions,” Dr van den Bergh told the University of Wollongong news service.
Map of the area in the journal Nature. (van den Bergh et al)
The research team used an innovative technique of luminescence dating to establish a date for the rock tools. The team discovered the tools in layers about 12 meters (40 feet) deep near extinct and extant animal teeth, a University of Wollongong press release states. The researchers determined the tools could have been 780,000 years old but were more likely between 118,000 and 194,000 years old.
In 2012, two of Dr. van den Bergh’s colleagues, Bo Li and Richard “Bert” Roberts, sampled the Talepu deposits and dated the artifact-bearing earth levels using the new luminescence dating technique for feldspars. The press release states:
“Their dating results obtained using Dr. Li’s method provided a major breakthrough, showing that the stone tools were buried in sediments deposited more than 100,000 years ago. These luminescence ages were supported by those obtained by the fossil teeth in the deeper deposits at the site using another dating technique, based on the decay of naturally occurring uranium absorbed by the teeth after burial. The species of human that made the stone tools remains an enigma, as no human fossils have been found at Talepu. But the old ages suggest that the toolmakers were either an archaic lineage of humans or – more controversially – some of earliest modern humans to reach Southeast Asia and perhaps the ancestors of the first people to arrive in Australia.”
These stone tools, discovered near the site where the very ancient tools were found, could not be dated because they were on the surface of the earth. (University of Wollongong)
The abstract of the researchers’ paper in Nature says that there was a hominin (archaic human) species of unknown origin on Flores about 1 million years ago. By 50,000 years ago there were modern humans on the island of Sahul, which is south of Sulawesi, nearer to Australia.
“Our findings suggest that Sulawesi, like Flores, was host to a long-established population of archaic hominins, the ancestral origins and taxonomic status of which remain elusive,” the abstract states.
The researchers say it’s possible Sulawesi was a stepping-stone for people to arrive in Australia.
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In other recent news out of Sulawesi, archaeologist and geochemist Maxime Aubert used a dating technique he has developed to assess how old a cave painting of a babirusa, a wild pig, was and found it to be an at least 35,400 years old.
Aubert examining one of the images of a babirusa (wild pig). Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Justin Mott)
“That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world—the world’s very first picture,” says an article about the discovery on Smithsonian.com. It’s among more than a dozen other dated cave paintings on Sulawesi that now rival the earliest cave art in Spain and France - long believed to be the oldest on earth. The findings made headlines around the world when Aubert and his colleagues announced them in late 2014, and the implications are revolutionary.”
Aubert also has found many hand stencils that prehistoric people make by blowing paint over their hands. People in Sulawesi still make a handprint on the central pillar of a new house as a symbol of strength and to protect against evil spirits, Smithsonian says. Aubert speculates that perhaps ancient people thought that way too.
Featured image: The Walanae River at Paroto, east of Talepu, where some of the tools were found. (University of Wollongong) Inserts: Professor Mike Morwood in 2009 examining stone artifacts collected near Talepu (University of Wollongong) and Hand stencils in the Cave of Fingers.(Justin Mott)
By: Mark Miller