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30,000-year-old Indonesian art

Excavations at the limestone cave of Leang Bulu Bettue on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Adam Brum and Michelle Langley, Ice age art and ‘jewellery’ found in an Indonesian cave reveal an ancient symbolic culture, The Conversation, 4 April 2017

A cave dig in Indonesia has unearthed a unique collection of prehistoric ornaments and artworks that date back in some instances to at least 30,000 years ago. The site is thought to have been used by some of the world’s earliest cave artists.

Published today, our new findings challenge the long-held view that hunter-gatherer communities in the Pleistocene (“Ice Age”) of Southeast Asia were culturally impoverished.

They also imply that the spiritual lives of humans transformed as they encountered previously unknown species on the journey from Asia to Australia.

The human journey beyond Asia

Modern humans had colonised Australia by 50,000 years ago. It was a journey that required people crossing by boat from continental Eurasia into Wallacea, a vast swathe of island chains and atolls spanning the ocean gap between mainland Asia and Australia.

Archaeologists have long speculated about the cultural lives of the first Homo sapiens to enter Wallacea, as part of the great movement of our species out of Africa.

Some have argued that human culture in the Late Pleistocene attained a high level of complexity as Homo sapiens spread into Europe and as far east as India. Thereafter, culture is thought to have declined in sophistication as people ventured into the tropics of Southeast Asia and Wallacea.

But new research in Wallacea is steadily dismantling this view.

New findings from ‘Ice Age’ Sulawesi

In the latest addition to this rash of discoveries, we describe a suite of previously undocumented symbolic artefacts excavated from a limestone cavern on Sulawesi, the largest island in Wallacea.

The artefacts were dated using a range of methods to between 30,000 and 22,000 years ago. They include disc-shaped beads made from the tooth of a babirusa, a primitive pig found only on Sulawesi, and a “pendant” fashioned from the finger bone of a bear cuscus, a large possum-like creature also unique to Sulawesi.

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