Early Holocene Shell Fish Hooks from Lene Hara Cave, East Timor Establish Complex Fishing Technology Was in Use in Island South East Asia Five Thousand Years before Austronesian Settlement

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Investigations at Lene Hara Cave

In a previous report for Antiquity (O'Connor et al. 2002a) the authors outlined the preliminary excavation and radiocarbon results from Lene Hara Cave, East Timor (Figure 1). These results were significant as they extended the then known occupation on this Wallacean island back by more than 20 000 years. A maximum age of 34 600 [+ or -] 630 b.p. (ANU-11418) was obtained on a marine shell sample. In 2002, further excavation was carried out at the site with the aim of sampling other areas of this extensive cave (Figure 2). In Test Pit A the Pleistocene horizon was directly overlain by an upper late Neolithic horizon spanning the last few thousand years. There was no physical evidence for erosion or removal of the deposit which would account for the 30 000 year gap in the sequence and it was suggested that changes in sea level may have made the cave less accessible during the terminal Pleistocene and early to mid Holocene (O'Connor et al. 2002a: 48). Subsequently a programme of direct dating of shell artefacts produced mid-Holocene dates of 4400 b.p. and 3600 b.p., respectively, on two small drilled beads recovered from the upper levels of the Pleistocene horizon in Test Pit A (O'Connor et al. 2002b: 19). This demonstrated that at least some use had been made of the cave during the mid-Holocene and that downward movement of some Holocene cultural materials into the Pleistocene horizon had taken place. In September 2002 the authors returned to Lene Hara and carried out further test-pitting with the aim of sampling other parts of this extensive cave and clarifying the chronology of its use. Test Pit B was located in the same area of the cave as our initial Test Pit A. Two other pits excavated in 2002, D and F, were located predominantly in the lower northern chamber outside the walled region of the deposit and north-east of the stone ceremonial platform surrounding a large carbonate column (Figure 3). Test Pit D was excavated to a depth of 0.8m below surface level when the discovery of a full cranium in the context of what appeared to be a burial raised serious concerns with the land owner of the cave, and the excavation was discontinued.


Pit F was sited 1m north-west of Pit D and taken to a depth of 2.05m (Figure 4). The upper stratigraphy contained pottery down to a depth of 0.7-0.75m. The transition to aceramic cultural horizons below 0.75m appears sharp, with shell, bone and stone artefacts preserved throughout the underlying deposits. The lowest pottery recovery is coincident with laterally discontinuous thin beds of ashy deposits interbedded with fine gravels (Figure 4). Some small-scale disconformities (see O'Connor et al. 1999) at this level cannot be excluded. The depth of bedrock at this point remains unestablished.


The sequence appears moderately to well stratified, and conformable. The radiocarbon dates support a model of net accumulation and continuous deposition (by combinations of inwash, sediment creep and roof-fall) through the Holocene in this northern area of the cave. Most units comprised matrix-supported coarse clastic roof-fall gravels set in variably silty sands and grits, with some vertical grading trends evident. Fine-bedding structures suggest the general pattern of net accumulation has been punctuated by brief episodes of erosional surface wash and winnowing across the cave floor. Three finer-grain and better-sorted horizons suggest some non-linearity (or rhythmicity) in sequence deposition rates, a feature also indicated by the age-depth distribution of radiocarbon ages (Figure 4). The lowest 0.5-0.6m of deposit is significantly coarser, denser and more cemented than overlying gravel units, and accumulated more slowly. Localised cementation by carbonate occurs throughout the sequence. Preservation of shell and bone seems broadly similar at all excavated levels. As in other parts of the site charcoal was not preserved below the upper 0. …