Magazine article Science News

Mystery Hominid Settled Sulawesi: Stone Tools Point to Early Colonization of Remote Island

Magazine article Science News

Mystery Hominid Settled Sulawesi: Stone Tools Point to Early Colonization of Remote Island

Article excerpt

Toolmakers ventured from Southeast Asia to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi deep in the Stone Age, far earlier than previously thought and probably before Homo sapiens originated in Africa 200,000 years ago, researchers say.

The discovery of ancient stone tools on Sulawesi, some of which date to a minimum of 194,000 years ago, also renews speculation about the evolutionary background of Homo floresiensis. Better known as the hobbit, H. floresiensis was a diminutive hominid that lived roughly 500 kilometers south of Sulawesi on the island of Flores at around the same time the Sulawesi tools were made.

"I wouldn't be surprised if H. floresiensis or a closely related lineage was responsible for the Sulawesi artifacts," says Harvard University archaeologist Christian Tryon, who did not participate in the new excavations. But the Sulawesi finds look much like stone tools made over the last 1.8 million years by several hominid species at sites throughout Southeast Asia, Tryon cautions. What's certain, he says, is that Sulawesi hominids fractured stones to make sharp-edged cutting implements.

Hominids left stone tools at four sites located by a team led by archaeologist Gerrit van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong in Australia. Excavations at one site, Talepu, unearthed 315 securely dated stone artifacts. These sharp-edged rocks range in age from at least 194,000 years ago to about 118,000 years ago, the team reports in the Jan. 14 Nature. Age estimates for the finds rest on calculations of the time since artifact-bearing soil was last exposed to sunlight.

Sulawesi and Flores are the only islands in the area known to have hosted hominids before modern humans reached several islands further east and Australia between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens arrived on Sulawesi roughly 40,000 years ago (SN: 11/15/14, p. 6).

Previous excavations on Flores led by study coauthor Adam Brumm of Griffith University in Nathan, Australia, uncovered 1-million-year-old stone tools made by presumed hobbit ancestors. …

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