Humans occupied northern Australia 65,000 years ago: What does this mean for SEA?

An exciting paper was published last week in Nature and received a fair bit of media coverage: dating from the Madjedbebe site in Northern Territories of Australia have yielded the earliest human occupation dates of 65,000 years, setting a new minimum age of human migration. The previous conventional earliest occupation date was about 47,000 years ago – so this new date is a pretty big deal. The finds have a bigger implication for human occupation in Southeast Asia: so far the oldest modern human remains found in SEA are from Tham Pa Ling in Laos, which are approximately 60,000 years old. This new find from Australia suggests that there may be older remains yet to be found in SEA.

The time of arrival of people in Australia is an unresolved question. It is relevant to debates about when modern humans first dispersed out of Africa and when their descendants incorporated genetic material from Neanderthals, Denisovans and possibly other hominins. Humans have also been implicated in the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Here we report the results of new excavations conducted at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia. Artefacts in primary depositional context are concentrated in three dense bands, with the stratigraphic integrity of the deposit demonstrated by artefact refits and by optical dating and other analyses of the sediments. Human occupation began around 65,000 years ago, with a distinctive stone tool assemblage including grinding stones, ground ochres, reflective additives and ground-edge hatchet heads. This evidence sets a new minimum age for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Source: Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago : Nature : Nature Research

See also:

[Book] New Perspectives in Southeast Asian and Pacific Prehistory (Terra Australis 45)

A new book from ANU Press – the ebook is free!

‘This volume brings together a diversity of international scholars, unified in the theme of expanding scientific knowledge about humanity’s past in the Asia-Pacific region. The contents in total encompass a deep time range, concerning the origins and dispersals of anatomically modern humans, the lifestyles of Pleistocene and early Holocene Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, the emergence of Neolithic farming communities, and the development of Iron Age societies.

Source: New Perspectives in Southeast Asian and Pacific Prehistory (Terra Australis 45) | ANU Press

Facial reconstruction of a woman from Pleistocene Thailand

A new paper from Antiquity presents a facial reconstruction of a woman found in Tham Lod, a Pleistocene site in northern Thailand.

https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2017.18

Creating a facial appearance for individuals from the distant past is often highly problematic, even when verified methods are used. This is especially so in the case of non-European individuals, as the reference populations used to estimate the face tend to be heavily biased towards the average facial variation of recent people of European descent. To evaluate the problem, a facial approximation of a young woman from the Late Pleistocene rockshelter of Tham Lod in north-western Thailand was compared against the average facial variation of datasets from recent populations. The analysis indicated that the Tham Lod facial approximation was neither overtly recent in facial morphology, nor overtly European. The case is of particular interest as the Tham Lod individual probably belonged to a population ancestral to extant Australo-Melanesian peoples.

Source: A Late Pleistocene woman from Tham Lod, Thailand: the influence of today on a face from the past | Antiquity | Cambridge Core

See also: Face of Stone Age woman from Thailand’s northern highlands revealed

Signs of early symbolic behaviour found in Indonesia

From the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a new paper highlights discoveries excavated in Sulawesi from 30,000 years ago, showing that humans were engaged in making symbolic artefacts in the form of jewelry, portable art and used ochre (probably for creating rock art which we already know is very old in Sulawesi). The finds suggest a cultural sophistication that we rarely see this early in the archaeological record.

10.1073/pnas.1619013114

Wallacea, the zone of oceanic islands separating the continental regions of Southeast Asia and Australia, has yielded sparse evidence for the symbolic culture of early modern humans. Here we report evidence for symbolic activity 30,000–22,000 y ago at Leang Bulu Bettue, a cave and rock-shelter site on the Wallacean island of Sulawesi. We describe hitherto undocumented practices of personal ornamentation and portable art, alongside evidence for pigment processing and use in deposits that are the same age as dated rock art in the surrounding karst region. Previously, assemblages of multiple and diverse types of Pleistocene “symbolic” artifacts were entirely unknown from this region. The Leang Bulu Bettue assemblage provides insight into the complexity and diversification of modern human culture during a key period in the global dispersal of our species. It also shows that early inhabitants of Sulawesi fashioned ornaments from body parts of endemic animals, suggesting modern humans integrated exotic faunas and other novel resources into their symbolic world as they colonized the biogeographically unique regions southeast of continental Eurasia.

Source: Early human symbolic behavior in the Late Pleistocene of Wallacea

Other news reports listed below:
Researchers uncover prehistoric art and ornaments from Indonesian ‘Ice Age’

Prehistoric jewellery found in Indonesian cave challenges view early humans less advanced

Ice age art in Indonesia reveals how spiritual life transformed en route to Australia

In Ice Age Indonesia, People Were Making Jewelry and Art

Researchers uncover prehistoric art and ornaments from Indonesian ‘Ice Age’

Learn the science of the Hobbit in this free online course

The University of Wollonggong is offering a free online course on the science of Homo floresiensis, one of the most intriguing hominid finds of recent history.

In a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, a team of archaeologists were surprised to find the skeletal remains of a mysterious new species. This free online course follows the incredible discovery of Homo floresiensis – or ‘the Hobbit’ as it has come to be known. Join us on a quest of discovery and adventure as the mystery is unravelled piece by piece using a variety of scientific techniques and archaeological approaches.

Source: Homo Floresiensis Uncovered – Online Course

Stone workshop suggests hominids in Central Vietnam 800,000 years ago

Stone tools estimated to be around 700,000-800,000 years old in Central Vietnam suggest the presence of hominids during the Paleolithic.

Stone tools from Gia Lai. Source: Viet Nam Net 20160707
Stone tools from Gia Lai. Source: Viet Nam Net 20160707

Discovery about ancient workshop stirs archeological community
Vietnam Net, 07 July 2016

The team of archaeologists from the Novosibirsk Institute of Archaeology & Ethnology belonging to the Russian Federal Science Academy and the Institute of Archaeology and Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences made the discovery about the existence of a production workshop of Vietnamese primitive men.

Dr Nguyen Gia Doi, Deputy Director of the Institute of Archaeology, said the exact name of the relic site is an early paleolithic relic with fossil tektite samples believed to be aged 770,000-800,000 years and stone artifacts such as hand axes.

This means that the upper course of the Ba River in An Khe was the place for people 700,000 years ago. This s the oldest appearance of humans and civilization ever recorded in Vietnamese territory.

Full story here.

Hints of Vietnam in the palaeolithic emerge from the Central Highlands

Stone tools discovered in the mountains of Central Vietnam suggest the presence of hominids around 800,000 years ago.

Palaeolithic handaxes from central Vietnam. Source: Vietnam Net 20160412
Palaeolithic handaxes from central Vietnam. Source: Vietnam Net 20160412

Vietnam discovers likely most ancient early Paleolithic sites in central region
Xinhua, via Shanghai Daily, 11 April 2016

Traces of Paleolithic age discovered in Vietnam
Vietnam Net, 12 April 2016

Vietnam for the first time discovered early Paleolithic sites inside cultural layer with stone tools and tektites believed to date back 770,000-800,000 years ago, according to Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) on Monday.

This is likely considered the most ancient mark ever-known on the appearance of human and their culture in Vietnam, the VASS said in Hanoi on Friday while announcing on preliminary results of archaeological study in An Khe town of Vietnam’s Central Highlands Gia Lai province.

In 2014, while implementing a ministerial level scientific project, archaeologists discovered five early Paleolithic sites in An Khe town, said Nguyen Gia Doi, Deputy Director of Institute of Archaeology under the VASS.

Full stories here and here.

Stone tools push the human occupation of Sulawesi back by 60,000 years

The discovery of stone tools from Sulawesi date to 118,000 years ago – possibly by the so-called hobbits – predate what is thought to be the earliest arrival of humans into Southeast Asia 50,000 – 60,000 years ago.

Stone tools dating to 118,000 years from Sulawesi. Source: ABC News 20160114
Stone tools dating to 118,000 years from Sulawesi. Source: ABC News 20160114

Earliest hominin occupation of Sulawesi, Indonesia
Gerrit D. van den Bergh, Bo Li, Adam Brumm, Rainer Grün, Dida Yurnaldi, Mark W. Moore, Iwan Kurniawan, Ruly Setiawan, Fachroel Aziz, Richard G. Roberts, Suyono, Michael Storey, Erick Setiabudi & Michael J. Morwood
Nature, doi:10.1038/nature16448

A group of mysterious humans left these tools in Indonesia over 118,000 years ago
Ars Technica, 15 January 2016

Stone tools found on Sulawesi in Indonesia ‘made by ancient humans at least 118,000 years ago
ABC News, 14 January 2016

‘Hobbit’ gets a neighbor: Stone tools hint at archaic human presence
CS Monitor, 14 January 2016

Ancient tools show how mysterious ‘Hobbit’ occupied Indonesian island
Reuters, via Ottowa Sun, 13 January 2016

Sulawesi is the largest and oldest island within Wallacea, a vast zone of oceanic islands separating continental Asia from the Pleistocene landmass of Australia and Papua (Sahul). By one million years ago an unknown hominin lineage had colonized Flores immediately to the south1, and by about 50 thousand years ago, modern humans (Homo sapiens) had crossed to Sahul2, 3. On the basis of position, oceanic currents and biogeographical context, Sulawesi probably played a pivotal part in these dispersals4. Uranium-series dating of speleothem deposits associated with rock art in the limestone karst region of Maros in southwest Sulawesi has revealed that humans were living on the island at least 40 thousand years ago (ref. 5). Here we report new excavations at Talepu in the Walanae Basin northeast of Maros, where in situ stone artefacts associated with fossil remains of megafauna (Bubalus sp., Stegodon and Celebochoerus) have been recovered from stratified deposits that accumulated from before 200 thousand years ago until about 100 thousand years ago. 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.

Article can be found here.

Oldest Hoabinhian site found in Yunnan

A new paper in Quaternary International discusses the Xiaodong rock shelter in Yunnan, the oldest Hoabinhian site to date. The Hoabinhian technoculture can be found throughout Southeast Asia, and so this discovery in Yunnan suggests the origins and subsequent spread of people using this set of tools into Southeast Asia.

Xiaodong rock shelter. Source: China.org 20151230
Xiaodong rock shelter. Source: China.org 20151230

The oldest Hoabinhian technocomplex in Asia (43.5 ka) at Xiaodong rockshelter, Yunnan Province, southwest China
Quarternary International, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2015.09.080

Oldest Hoabinhian site discovered in SW China
China.org, 30 December 2015

The Hoabinhian is the most representative technocomplex in Southeast Asian prehistory for the later hunter–gatherer period. As a mainland technology based exclusively on seasonal tropical environments, this core-tool culture was previously defined in northern Vietnam in 1932 and characterized originally by its large, flat and long, largely unifacial cobble tools associated with tropical forest fauna. The recent discoveries and dates obtained at Xiaodong rockshelter in Yunnan Province (southwest China) allow us to discuss the origin and the homeland of this singular Asian technocomplex which spread to Southeast Asia during the end of the Late Upper Pleistocene. Here we present the first Chinese Hoabinhian lithic implements in their stratigraphic and chronological context within a rockshelter site, and we address the question of the dispersal of modern humans from South China to Southeast Asia.

News article here.

The Tham Lod site of Mae Hong Son

A feature on Tham Lod, a Pleistocene-Holocene site in Mae Hong Son province of northern Thailand.

Tham Lod. Source: Ancient Origins 20151109
Tham Lod. Source: Ancient Origins 20151109

Magnificent Tham Lod Cave Sheds Light on Earliest Humans in Thailand
Ancient Origins, 09 November 2015

The Tham Lod Rockshelter (a shallow cave) in Mae Hong Son Province, in Northwest Thailand is a prehistoric area that had been the center for burial and tool–making in the late Pleistocene to the late Holocene phase. The magnificent cave, a photographer’s and archaeologist’s dream, continues to shed light on the earliest humans that inhabited Thailand.

The discovery of a wealth of archaeological remains inside the Tham Lod rockshelter, also known as Tham Lot cave, led to the protection of the site by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Studies in 2001. Extensive excavations were carried out to establish and examine human activity at Tham Lod during the three major periods of occupation in the region. The results revealed extensive long-term activity by early humans including hunting, food preparation, tool-making, and human burials.

Full story here.