Subject: SMH: Cave find a stepping stone back to early man

Sydney Morning Herald

Cave find a stepping stone back to early man

Deborah Smith Science Editor

December 22, 2006

THE oldest evidence of occupation by modern humans on the islands that were the stepping stones to Australia has been discovered by an Australian archaeologist.

A cave site in East Timor where people lived more than 42,000 years ago - dining on turtles, tuna and giant rats - was unearthed by Sue O'Connor, head of archaeology and natural history at the Australian National University.

She also found ancient stone tools and shells used for decoration in the limestone shelter, known as Jerimalai, on the eastern tip of the island.

Associate Professor O'Connor said her discovery could help solve the mystery of the route ancient seafarers took to get here from South-East Asia.

It strengthened the view that they made a southern passage, via Timor, rather than north via Borneo, Sulawesi and down through 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 this month's annual conference of the Australian Archaeological Association.

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, which was then joined to 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 that lived in caves 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 could only have been captured in deeper waters offshore using hooks, and probably also water craft, she said.

The find 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.

Newer dating techniques have revealed people first arrived in Australia between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

Dr O'Connor said these dating techniques needed to be applied to sites in South-East Asia. The Jerimalai area is unusual in having been geologically lifted, preserving a window into the past.


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