A Shark-Tooth Ornament from Pleistocene Sahul
Leavesley, Matthew G., Antiquity
The origin of anatomical 'modern' humans has been vigorously pursued since the first non-modern skulls were discovered in the late nineteenth century (Lahr & Foley 1998). More recently the debate to discover whether 'modern' behaviour began concurrently with anatomical modernity has intensified. While anatomy is determined by analysis of cranial morphology and the precise dating of fossils, behaviour is much harder to quantify in the archaeological record. Symbolism is a rare characteristic that is universally accepted as a marker of modernity (d'Errico et al. 2005: 4). Language is considered the clearest evidence of symbolic behaviour, but as it leaves no direct material manifestation, the use of symbolic systems must be inferred from objects (Hovers et al. 2003: 491). Personal ornaments, art and burials are generally considered unquestioned expressions of symbolism (Henshilwood et al. 2004: 404; d'Errico et al. 2005). With some notable exceptions, such as the ochre-covered Mungo III burial, most evidence for symbolism comes from Europe and is <50 000 years old (d'Errico et al. 2005: 4). However, the recent discovery of shall beads from Skhul at between 135 000 bp and 100 000 bp (Vanhaeren et al. 2006) and Blombos Cave in South Africa, dated to c. 75 000 bp, has re-ignited interest in body ornaments in the early archaeological record and their implications (Henshilwood et al. 2004: 404).
Various models have been proposed for the appearance of modern behaviour and are described in detail elsewhere (Stringer 2002: 563-64; d'Errico et al. 2005: 4). However, the dominant paradigm sees the development of anatomically modern humans by 160 000 bp followed by modern behaviour sometime later, but prior to the dispersal out of Africa (d'Errico et al. 2005: 4). Uncertainties about Australasia have led to reluctance to propose truly global models (Stringer 2002: 564). However, on this basis we might expect to see evidence of symbolism concurrent with human dispersal across Eurasia and Australasia. Up to now, such evidence has been relatively thin on the ground.
At the height of successive glacial maxima, New Guinea, Australia and some of their offshore islands formed a single land-mass known as Sahul. But at no time during the Pleistocene was New Guinea attached to Southeast Asia, being separated by the biogeographic boundary known as the Wallace Line. Nor was New Ireland attached to New Guinea and is therefore considered an off-shore island to Sahul (Kirch 2000: 66). While Homo erectus is known throughout Eurasia from Africa to China and Java (Lahr & Foley 1998), it is conventionally considered that Sahul was colonised by Anatomical Modern Humans sometime between 60 000 and 40 000 years ago (O'Connor & Chappell 2003; cf. O'Connell & Allen 2004). Crossing the Wallace Line necessitated a variety of organisational requirements. These include the capacity to cross the sea, traverse the continent at a relatively rapid rate and to adapt to environments as diverse as the tropical forests of New Guinea or tundra like the high latitudes of Tasmania (Kirch 2000: 67). The colonisation of the Bismarck Archipelago soon after that of Sahul leaves little doubt that the first people were comfortable on and around the sea as there is extensive use of coastal resources (Kirch 2000: 69). Elsewhere it has been argued that the use of boats to cross the sea barrier to Sahul is evidence of language; the use of language is seen as evidence for the use of a symbol system which in turn is indicative of modern human behaviour (Davidson & Noble 1992).
Buang Merabak cave site
The perforated shark tooth presented here is from a Late-Pleistocene occupation in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea (Figure 1), and it was excavated from a stratigraphic unit dating between c. 39 500 bp and c. 28 000 bp in Buang Merabak cave in central New Ireland. The archaeological potential of the Buang Merabak cave site was first identified by Clay (1974). …