Ancient teeth rewrite Asian human history
Fresh dating evidence pushes back Homo sapiens arrival in Indonesia by 20,000 years.
Fossil teeth collected from a cave in West Sumatra indicate that anatomically modern humans were living on southeast Asian islands about 20,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The finding, published in the journal Nature in July, has ramifications in a number of significant areas.
The teeth, retrieved from a cave named Lida Ajer, provide the earliest evidence of modern humans living in a rainforest – an environment known to be extremely challenging for incoming Homo sapiens, who were adapted to open grassland survival. Just as significantly, the dating of human settlement in the region to between 73,000 and 63,000 years ago bolsters the evidence for an earlier settlement of Australia, by at least 5,000 years.
Research published in Nature only weeks earlier show that modern humans were living at Madjedbebe, a site in Australia’s Northern Territory, 65,000 years ago (see opposite page).
Until the Lida Ajer findings – made by a team headed by Kira Westaway from Macquarie University in New South Wales – evidence of human presence in southeast Asia, through which the ancestors of the first Australians must have travelled, could not be established before 60,000 years ago.
The teeth at the centre of the new research – an incisor and a molar – were first discovered by Dutch paleoanthropologist and explorer Eugene Dubois in the late 19th century.
Poorly documented, they remained unstudied until Westaway and her colleagues rediscovered the cave in which they were found (using Dubois’ original notebook) and established a firm age range for the soil layers in which they were lodged, using luminescence and uraniumthorium dating methods.
Meet Kira Westaway, scuba diver turned ancient hominin expert, page 85.
CREDIT: MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY Kira Westaway, pulling teeth in Sumatra.