Dec 21, 2006
Jerimalai shelter in East Timor, where Dr Su O'Connor of ANU has discovered the oldest evidence of occupation by modern humans on the islands that were the stepping stones to Australia. Photo: Supplied
AN AUSTRALIAN archaeologist has discovered the oldest evidence of occupation by modern humans on the islands that were the stepping stones from South-East Asia to Australia.
A cave site in East Timor where people lived more than 42,000 years ago, eating turtles, tuna and giant rats, was unearthed by Sue O'Connor, head of archaeology and natural history at the Australian National University.
Dr O'Connor also found ancient stone tools and shells used for decoration in the limestone shelter, known as Jerimalai, on the eastern tip of the island.
She said her discovery could help solve the mystery of the route ancient seafarers took to get here from South-East Asia.
It strengthens the view that they made a southern passage, via Timor, rather than travelling northwards via Borneo and Sulawesi, then down through Papua New Guinea. "The antiquity of the Jerimalai shelter makes this site significant at a world level," said Dr O'Connor, who presented the findings at the annual conference of the Australian Archaeological Association this month.
Sea levels were lower when modern humans set off around the coast from Africa more than 70,000 years ago. People who made it to the large South-East Asian land mass known as Sunda, however, still had to cross deep ocean channels to get to Australia, then joined to Papua New Guinea in a continent called Sahul.
Until now, the age of habitation sites found on the stepping stone islands in between had been much younger than those found in Australia, making it impossible to determine the route taken.
Although the Jerimalai site is at least 42,000 years old, it could be much older, Dr O'Connor said, because this was the detection limit of the radiocarbon dating method used. She said the simple stone tools unearthed in the shelter were similar to those used by the species of hobbit-sized people who lived in a cave on the nearby island of Flores until 12,000 years ago.
But she was confident Jerimalai's inhabitants were modern humans, Homo sapiens, and not small-brained members of Homo floresiensis, because of the evidence for their sophisticated behaviour found in the dig. Fish such as tuna, for example, "could only have been captured in the deeper waters offshore using hooks, and probably also water craft", she said.
The find, however, raised big questions, such as why modern humans appeared to have bypassed Flores on their way to Timor. One possibility was that the hobbits were able to repel them.
"It is clear that this region warrants a great deal more study," Dr O'Connor said.