A reassessment of the early archaeological record at Leang Burung 2, a Late Pleistocene rock-shelter site on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi

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A new paper on PLOS One describes stone tools finds from the rock shelter of Leang Burung in Sulawesi, dating to more than 50,000 years – but it is uncertain which species of humans made them.

This paper presents a reassessment of the archaeological record at Leang Burung 2, a key early human occupation site in the Late Pleistocene of Southeast Asia. Excavated originally by Ian Glover in 1975, this limestone rock-shelter in the Maros karsts of Sulawesi, Indonesia, has long held significance in our understanding of early human dispersals into ‘Wallacea’, the vast zone of oceanic islands between continental Asia and Australia. We present new stratigraphic information and dating evidence from Leang Burung 2 collected during the course of our excavations at this site in 2007 and 2011–13. Our findings suggest that the classic Late Pleistocene modern human occupation sequence identified previously at Leang Burung 2, and proposed to span around 31,000 to 19,000 conventional 14C years BP (~35–24 ka cal BP), may actually represent an amalgam of reworked archaeological materials. Sources for cultural materials of mixed ages comprise breccias from the rear wall of the rock-shelter–remnants of older, eroded deposits dated to 35–23 ka cal BP–and cultural remains of early Holocene antiquity. Below the upper levels affected by the mass loss of Late Pleistocene deposits, our deep-trench excavations uncovered evidence for an earlier hominin presence at the site. These findings include fossils of now-extinct proboscideans and other ‘megafauna’ in stratified context, as well as a cobble-based stone artifact technology comparable to that produced by late Middle Pleistocene hominins elsewhere on Sulawesi.

Source: A reassessment of the early archaeological record at Leang Burung 2, a Late Pleistocene rock-shelter site on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi | PLOS One, doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193025

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Signs of early symbolic behaviour found in Indonesia

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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’

Torajan death rituals

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Death rituals of the Toraja. Source: National Geographic 201603

Archaeologists have an intrinsic relationship with the dead, since we deal with the past. So this story of the death rituals of the Toraja of Sulawesi should give us some pause for how we think about death and their archaeological signatures.

Death rituals of the Toraja. Source: National Geographic 201603

Death rituals of the Toraja. Source: National Geographic 201603

When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye
National Geographic, March 2016

This Community in Sulawesi, Indonesia Keeps the Dead in Homes for Years
Inverse, 25 March 2016

Cultures and societies respect the dead differently all around the world. Every year on my father’s side of the family, all my relatives gather at the cemetery where my ancestors are buried to take part in the Chinese ritual called Qingming, or Cleaning of the Grave. We lay out a full meal of chicken, duck, and rice, pour beer and tea, light candles, and even burn paper money so our deceased loved ones are comfortable in the afterlife. For the people living in the region of South Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands just east of Borneo, death is a long and sacred process — one where death does not come until the body leaves the home.

The Toraja of Sulawesi keep the bodies of the deceased in their homes for as long as a few years, believing “that a dead person who is still at home is not dead.” National Geographic documented the culture’s sacred tradition in a video, revealing their lavish celebrations for the dead. When a loved one passes away, the family members treat the body as if the person were still alive. They describe death as prolonged sleep. Torajans take the utmost care of the body, cleaning it and brushing off dirt, changing its clothes, praying with it, feeding it, and leaving the lights on in the evening.

Full story here.
Video here. [Warning: Imagery of the dead]

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

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

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.

The oldest representational art in the world, found in Southeast Asia

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Rock art from Sulawesi. Source: Smithsonian 201601

The Smithsonian Magazine’s feature on the rock art of Sulawesi, Indonesia, which was discovered to be as old as some of the palaeolithic paintings from archaeology.

Rock art from Sulawesi. Source: Smithsonian 201601

Rock art from Sulawesi. Source: Smithsonian 201601

A Journey to the Oldest Cave Paintings in the World
Smithsonian, January 2016

This ghostly babirusa has been known to locals for decades, but it wasn’t until Aubert, a geochemist and archaeologist, used a technique he developed to date the painting that its importance was revealed. He found that it is staggeringly ancient: at least 35,400 years old. That likely makes it the oldest-known example of figurative art anywhere in the world—the world’s very first picture.

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. They smash our most common ideas about the origins of art and force us to embrace a far richer picture of how and where our species first awoke.

Hidden away in a damp cave on the “other” side of the world, this curly-tailed creature is our closest link yet to the moment when the human mind, with its unique capacity for imagination and symbolism, switched on.

Full story here.

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More news stories from the Sulawesi rock art

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40,000 year old rock art from Sulawesi

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Hand stencil from Borneo

I’ve been waiting excitedly for this paper to be published! A new paper out in Nature presents new rock art dates from hand stencils in Sulawesi, with a whopper of a date: 40,000 years old! For those keeping score, that’s as old as the Palaeolithic rock art in Europe. These dates were derived using uranium-series dating, which is a method for dating calcium carbonate and thus a great way for dating rock art in limestone contexts where there’s mineral accretions over paintings.

Personally, the age of the dates isn’t all that surprising – having worked at a number of rock art sites in SEA one gets the impression that some of them are really old. There aren’t many dates for rock art in Southeast Asia because rock art is quite hard to date in of itself. But the few attempts to date rock art in SEA tend to suggest that some rock art is very old indeed: another u-series rock art from East Timor dates to no later than 6,300 years old (with a possible earlier layer of about 22,000 years). On the mainland we have estimates of rock art ages from associated finds at Padalin Caves that go back to 7,000 – 13,000 years.

For me, the big significance of this date is that this is a rock art site in Sulawesi, in Island Southeast Asia. This suggests that some rock art in Mainland Southeast Asia would be of comparable age, if not older: in the paper the authors suggest that “it is possible that an extensive
archive of rock art may yet survive from the initial modern human colonization of Australia and Southeast Asia”. I hope this paper also starts to upend a lot of the Eurocentrism inherent in world rock art literature – the painted caves of France and Spain are majestic and old, to be sure, but there are other old corpuses of art out there that need to be studied further. The rock art from Sulawesi is not a new discovery – its existence has been known for decades, but the new age determination adds a whole new dimension to the field.  Congrats to Max Aubert and team for this great paper!

Hand stencil from Borneo

Hand stencil from Borneo

Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia.
Nature, doi 10.1038/nature13422.
Aubert, M., Brumm, A., Ramli, M., Sutikna, T,. Saptomo, E. W., Hakim, B, Morwood, M. J., D. van
den Bergh. G., Kinsley, L., Dosseto. A.

40,000 year old rock art found in Indonesia
The Conversation, 09 October 2014

Ancient Indonesian rock art rewrites art history
ABC News, 09 October 2014

World’s oldest art found in Indonesian cave
Nature News, 08 October 2014

Indonesian Cave Paintings As Old As Europe’s Ancient Art
NPR, 08 October 2014

Cave paintings change ideas about the origin of art
BBC NEws, 08 October 2014

First-Known Painting Depicts Rare, Hefty Animal
Discover News, 08 October 2014

Prehistoric paintings suggest Indonesians began making art 40,000 years ago
Reuters, via Raw Story, 08 October 2014

Prehistoric Paintings in Indonesia May Be Oldest Cave Art Ever
Live Science, 08 October 2014

Indonesian cave art may be world’s oldest
Science News, 08 October 2014

Indonesian cave art: oldest hand ‘stencil’ yet discovered
Christian Science Monitor, 08 October 2014

Cave Paintings in Indonesia Redraw Picture of Earliest Art
National Geographic News, 08 October 2014

Prehistoric Cave Art Discovered in the Tropics
Discover, 08 October 2014
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Symposium: Macassan history and heritage

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The Australian National University is hosting a symposium on the cross-cultural links between traders from Makassar in Sulawesi with northern Australia, including recent archaeological research.

Macassan history and heritage: Building understanding of journeys, encounters and influences
Institute for Professional Practice in Heritage & the Arts
The Australian National University
9-10 February 2012
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