Clues to our ancestors found in Timor-Leste

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 02nd December 2011

PREHISTORIC humans living near Indonesia more than 40,000 years ago had mastered the skills needed to catch fast-moving, deep-ocean fish, a new archaeological find by Australian researchers has revealed.
The find, reported an authoritative science publication last week, mirrors what we in Papua New Guinea already know from archaeological research that already had been undertaken here – that is, the earliest ancestors to our region had knowledge of deep sea fishing.
The Australian National University archaeologist associate professor Sue O’Connor announced last week that in a small cave at the eastern end of Timor-Leste, her team had unearthed the bones of more than 2,800 fish, some of which were caught as far back as 42,000 years ago.
She told Radio Australia the find showed that the people living in the region had the sophisticated cognitive skills needed to haul in such a difficult catch.
Her findings appeared in the latest edition of Science.
“What the site has shown us is that early modern humans in island South East Asia had amazingly advanced maritime skills.
“They were expert at catching the types of fish that would be challenging even today – fish like tuna.
“It’s a very exciting find.”
It is not clear exactly what techniques the people living in the area at the time used to catch the fish.
Today, tuna can be caught using nets or by trolling hooks on long lines through the water.
“Either way it seems certain that these people were using quite sophisticated technology and watercraft to fish offshore,” she wrote in Science.
The site where the discoveries were made, known as Jerimalai cave, is a small rock overhang hidden behind foliage, a few hundred metres from the shore.
“When I discovered it in 2005, I didn’t think that Jerimalai would tell us about the very early occupation of Timor-Leste,” O’Connor said.
“I was quite surprised when I found all these fish bones and turtle bones”.
So far, O’Connor and her colleagues have only excavated two small test pits at the cave.
But in just one of those pits, one metre square and 2cm deep, they found 39,000 fish bones along with a number of stone artefacts, bone points, animal remains, shell beads and fish hooks.
They also unearthed another rare find – a small piece of fishing hook made from a shell, which dates to between 23,000 and 16,000 years ago.
O’Connor said this was the earliest example of a fishing hook that had ever been found.
She and her team are hopeful that more extensive excavations might reveal more hooks at the at Timor-Leste site.
“I think Jerimalai gives us a window into what maritime coastal occupation was like 40,000 to 50,000 years ago that we don’t really have anywhere else in the world.”
Noted archaeologist and anthropologist Prof Glenn Summerhayes from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who has done much research in PNG, told The National yesterday that the Timor-Leste discoveries were important in understanding the nature of the earliest peoples who colonised this region.
Summerhayes, who was not involved in the Timor-Leste discoveries, however said they have confirmed what we already know from archaeological research that already had been undertaken in PNG – that is, the earliest ancestors to this region had knowledge of deep sea fishing.
He said by email that archaeological research by Dr Matthew Leavesley, now deputy dean of humanities, University of PNG, at the site of Buang Merabak, located on the east coast of central New Ireland province, demonstrated that deep sea exploitation took place in the late Pleistocene.
“Indeed Dr Leavesley found a drilled tiger sharks tooth from 45,000-30,000 year-old levels.
“The tooth would have been used as an ornament and is remarkable for its age!”
Further to the south, Dr Steve Wickler currently at the University of Tromse, Norway, undertook excavations over 25 years ago on midden materials from Buka Island.
From his research he already demonstrated that deep sea fishing was practised in the late Pleistocene by the earliest inhabitants.
Summerhayes said the Timor-Leste discoveries also highlight what had been called the world’s oldest fishhook found in contexts that could date between 23,000 to 16,000 years ago.
“Yet, fishhook blanks of a similar age were found in the 1980s by Prof Jim Allen from La Trobe University, Australia, from the New Ireland site of Matenbek.”
He said that in so in many ways these new discoveries that were being reported in the international media complemented what he and his colleagues had already known for the past 25 years from archaeological research from PNG.
“As can be seen, archaeological discoveries from Papua New Guinea are important in understanding the past from not only of this country, but East Asia as a whole.”
What is crucial at this present time, says Summerhayes, is to keep the momentum of archaeological research into PNG continuing, and the only way to do this is to support the archaeologists at the National Museum and Art Gallery of PNG and the University of Papua New Guinea.
He also said that further archaeological work into the first peoples of PNG will be conducted in February next year in the Ivane Valley of Goilala, Central province, where occupation going back 50,000 years was found.
The Goilala expedition will be conducted with Herman Mandui from the National Museum and Art Gallery, Dr Leavesley and students from UPNG.
Summerhayes sums up: “Archaeology in Papua New Guinea is leading the world in understanding the spread of humanity across the globe.
It is something for all Papua New Guineans to be proud of. Let’s keep it going.”