Early Timor habitation at Jerimalai

2 minute read

Australia's The Age online has a story by Deborah Smith that gives a short report about excavations at Jerimalai rock shelter, East Timor:

A cave site in East Timor where people lived more than 42,000 years ago, eating turtles, tuna and giant rats, was unearthed by Sue O'Connor, head of archaeology and natural history at the Australian National University.

The article discusses the significance in terms of a possible demonstration that the Timor route was taken by early Australian colonists, rather than the northern route via Sulawesi -- although it by no means rules out the northern route.

There is the obligatory mention of nearby Flores:

Although the Jerimalai site is at least 42,000 years old, it could be much older, Dr O'Connor said, because this was the detection limit of the radiocarbon dating method used. She said the simple stone tools unearthed in the shelter were similar to those used by the species of hobbit-sized people who lived in a cave on the nearby island of Flores until 12,000 years ago.
But she was confident Jerimalai's inhabitants were modern humans, Homo sapiens, and not small-brained members of Homo floresiensis, because of the evidence for their sophisticated behaviour found in the dig. Fish such as tuna, for example, "could only have been captured in the deeper waters offshore using hooks, and probably also water craft", she said.
The find, however, raised big questions, such as why modern humans appeared to have bypassed Flores on their way to Timor. One possibility was that the hobbits were able to repel them.

Or, modern humans were on Flores and left their tools there...

Actually, the most important piece of evidence at this Timor site may be the exploitation of deep marine resources, because it really shows a sophistication of seagoing technology. This sophistication is quite consistent with the early habitation of the Bismarck Archipelago before 30,000 years ago.

These people were routinely going far from land in their watercraft. The habitation of these islands was not accomplished by happenstance floating on ersatz rafts; it was part of a systematic exploitation of a marine resource niche.

The relevance of the site for the initial colonization of Sahul depends on its date. At present, the evidence for human habitation of Australia is certainly older than 40,000 years, and apparently younger than 60,000. If humans reached Australia as early as 60,000 years ago, they could easily have filled it by 42,000 years ago. After all, people took only a few thousand years to fill the Americas from top to bottom. So if the site is only 42,000 years old, it might represent a complex seafaring culture that actually followed the first Australian colonists by a substantial degree, and may have played little role in the origins of the Australians.

On the other hand, if the site is much older than 42,000 years, or represents a culture with substantially older time depth, then it might well be closely linked to the first Australians. In which case we could probably infer that the initial habitation of Australia and New Guinea were events that involved a sophisticated and potentially rapid spread along the coasts, with later penetration into the interior.

A sophisticated seafaring modern human culture that dated to as early as 60,000 years would encompass almost all the time depth of the Liang Bua cave stratigraphy, by the way.