Subject: Archaeologists find 35,000-year-old site in East Timor


Canberra, Wednesday 28 March, 2001

Archaeologists find 35,000-year-old site in East Timor

The first recorded date of settlement in East Timor has more than doubled following the carbon dating of an archaeological site. Dr Susan O'Connor and Professor Matthew Spriggs from The Australian National University have excavated a site at the eastern end of the island, near Tutuala village, and gathered samples of left over shells from seafood for dating.

Radiocarbon dating carried out by the ANU facility has established that the cave of Lene Hara was first occupied by humans about 30,000 to 35,000 years ago. Until now the earliest known site in East Timor was one excavated in 1966-7 by then-ANU student Ian Glover. It produced radiocarbon dates back to 13,000 years ago, along with bones of giant rats and stone tools.

During the Indonesian occupation no archaeological research could be carried out in East Timor. Scholars were excited by the possibilities opened up by East Timor's vote for independence for tracing the route of entry into Australia of its earliest inhabitants. The new carbon dates from the cave shell samples are closer in age to previous dates of first settlement of Australia than anything found before in East Timor.

Timor is a likely stepping-stone for the ancestors of the Australian Aboriginal people arriving from Asia. "Initially we didn't think the cave was particularly old - maybe 8,000 years old and we were surprised when the dating figures came in," Professor Spriggs said. "The Lene Hara dates showed us we are hot on the trail of the earliest human inhabitants of East Timor, who may well have been the ancestors of the earliest Australians We are anxious to get back into the field later this year to continue our search for even earlier sites."

Dr O'Connor and Professor Spriggs were able to visit East Timor in June and September of last year, using funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC). They will be joined in the field this year by Dr Peter Veth of James Cook University (JCU). The scientific work has the blessing of the UN administration and Timorese leaders. East Timor scholar Lucy da Costa accompanied them on their September expedition and acted as liaison with the local community in Tutuala.

"We have a good idea of the technologies used by the earliest Australians some 50-60,000 years ago. If the earliest Timorese stone tools are the same then this would establish links between the two populations," Dr O'Connor said.

The Australian National University-James Cook University team plans to continue its East Timor research in July this year, in cooperation with the University of East Timor and the Museum in Dili. Pictures of the cave dig site can be downloaded from the ANU Media Photos webpage. For more information: Professor Matthew Spriggs, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, 02 6125 8229 (w) or School number: 02 6125 3498 or email:

Dr Susan O'Connor, Department of Archaeology and Natural History, RSPAS, 02 6125 2245 (w) or email:

Clarissa Thorpe, ANU Public Affairs 02 6249 5575 (w) or 0416 249 245 (mobile)

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