An­cient teeth re­write Asian hu­man his­tory

Fresh dat­ing ev­i­dence pushes back Homo sapi­ens ar­rival in In­done­sia by 20,000 years.

Cosmos - - Digest -

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.

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