Excavation at Lene Hara Cave Establishes Occupation in East Timor at Least 30,000-35,000 Years Ago

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Timor, the largest of the Lesser Sunda Island chain lying between Java and New Guinea and Australia, has long been recognized as one of the most prospective locations for finding evidence of early settlement by Homo sapiens making the water crossing across Wallacea between the Pleistocene continents of Sunda and Sahul. Birdsell (1977) proposed Timor as a likely stepping-stone island for migration into Sahul as it lay on two possible migration routes involving fairly short water crossings. The first (FIGURE 1, 2A) follows the Lesser Sunda chain of islands along to Timor and then continues on east to Tanimbar Island, with an eventual landfall near the Aru Islands on the expanded Sahul Shelf. The second (FIGURE 1, 2B) crosses from Timor to the shelf in the present Kimberley region of the northwest Australian coast.


The date for initial human colonization of Australia is now widely accepted at c. 55,000-65,000 years ago (Roberts et al. 1994; Thorne et al. 1999). However, the Wallacean islands on potential migration routes between Sunda and Sahul have failed to produce dates approaching the antiquity of the earliest Australian sites (Bellwood et al. 1998; O'Connor et al. in press). These factors highlight the need for further archaeological investigations in Timor.

Despite promising results obtained in the mid 1960s in East Timor (Glover 1969; 1986), there has been no research possible there over the 25 years following the 1975 Indonesian invasion. The current UN transitional presence and impending independence for East Timor have allowed archaeology to recommence.

Here we report some of the recent results of the East Timor Archaeological Project (ETAP), a survey and excavation project begun in June 2000 by the Australian National University and James Cook University, in consultation with the UN Administration and East Timorese leaders.

Prior to the commencement of ETAP the archaeology of East Timor (formerly Portuguese Timor) was known solely through the research of Portuguese anthropologists in the 1950s and 1960s and that of Ian Glover, conducted during 1966-7. The Portuguese carried out surface surveys, and in 1963 Antonio de Almeida excavated a cave, Lene Hara, on the eastern tip of Timor near Tutuala (Almeida & Zybszweski 1967: 57-8). Glover carried out an extensive test-pitting programme in the Baucau, Venilale, Laga and Baguia regions before completing major excavations at four caves in the first two regions (Glover 1969; 1986). Glover's primary goal was to investigate Timor as a possible source area for Pleistocene migration to Australia. However, his oldest site, Uai Bobo 2 near Venilale, dated only to 13,400 [+ or -] 520 BP (ANU-238) and the other dated cave occupations were Holocene in age.

Almeida's excavation of Lene Hara comprised 2 trenches of 2x1 m and produced an 80-cm deep cultural assemblage with marine shells and stone artefacts to the base. His assessment was that the industry contained `Mousterian' and `Tayacian-like' implements and should be classified as Middle Palaeolithic through to Mesolithic (Almeida & Zybszweski 1967: 65). Unfortunately, the molluscan and other fauna were never described and the site was not dated. Almeida also recorded painted rock art at Lene Hara as well as in other sites in the Tutuala region (Almeida 1967). Glover noted that Almeida's illustrations of the stone artefacts he collected suggested little similarity with the `distinctive tool types' found elsewhere in Timor in his own excavations (1969: 40).

The fact that the stone industry of Lene Hara was thought to be unique within the East Timor context and was claimed to be of a considerable antiquity on typological grounds, albeit undated radiometrically, led us to target it for excavation in 2000. Lene Hara is a large solution cave, positioned in a raised limestone terrace approximately 100 m above sea level and less than I km from the current coastline (FIGURE 2). …