Friday 25 November 2011

Fishermen targeting tuna in East Timor at least 42 000 years ago.

The Jerimalai Rock Shelter was first uncovered in 2005, on a limestone terrace (flat area of limestone) at the eastern tip of East Timor. It was occupied by anatomically modern humans from about 42 000 years ago until about 2500 years ago. The site has previously been noted for its striking obsidian artifacts; archaeologists are uncertain of the source of this obsidian, which has not been found on Timor, implying it may have been traded from further away. Other sites in the area have yielded similar tools, as well as spectacular stone carvings, shards of pottery and signs of animal domestication.

The Jerimalai Rock Shelter.

The 25 November 2011 edition of the journal Science contains a paper by a team lead by Sue O'Connor of the Department of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University which describes the discovery of the remains of large pelagic (ocean going) fish including tuna, as well as the oldest known fish-hooks to have been discovered anywhere in the world. These hooks were made from shell. It is not clear if the hooks were used to catch the tuna, or whether they were caught in another way (such as netting them at they passed through a narrow channel), but either way catching such fish shows a remarkable level of skill and technological achievement for such an early period; these remains are roughly ten times as old as the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge, from a time when Europe was still locked in an Ice Age.

The July 2011 edition of the journal Archaeology in Oceania contained a paper by a team lead by Christian Reepmeyer, also of the Australian National University, detailing the extent of obsidian tool use in at Jerimalai and other sites in East Timor and Indonesia. This suggested that all the obsidian found at different locations in East Timor was from a single source, but was unable to locate the source of this material, nor establish if it came from East Timor or further afield. Obsidian is a glassy rock formed by the rapid cooling of rhyolitic lavas at the surface. As such it is seldom found in large deposits, so it is possible that the source was exhausted.

Sites in East Timor and the surrounding islands where sophisticated obsidian tools have been found.

In 2010 a paper by Sue O'connor in the journal Antiquity detailed the discovery of sophisticated rock art at Lene Hara on the north coast of East Timor, which bore a strong resemblance to rock art in Australia.

Rock carving at Lene Hara.

We have known for a long time that early humans in this part of the world had good seagoing skills, since they reached Australia approximately 50 000 years ago, but until fairly recently these people were still widely looked upon as 'primitive'. The picture now emerging from Jerimalai, and other sites on East Timor, and across Indonesia and the islands of Oceania is of a remarkably sophisticated civilization, trading widely and achieving technological feats that would not be matched in other parts of the globe for many millennia.

What is particularly remarkable about the East Timor sites is their proximity to the Island of Flores, where an entirely separate species of human, the diminutive, Homo floresiensis, is thought to have survived till as recently as 19 000 years ago. This would make the fishermen and mariners of ancient Timor and other islands the most advanced culture known to have lived in close proximity to another species of human, though they were clearly active explorers with an impressive array of complex hunting tools.

See also Out of Africa(?) and Mammals on Sciency Thoughts YouTube.