Archaeologists seeking evidence of the first modern humans in Indonesia have been looking in the wrong place, a new study claims. The topography and water resources would have pushed the first migration north to Sulawesi and New Guinea, rather than south to Java and Timor as has previously been thought. Searching the neglected northern islands could reveal a scientific treasure trove.
We have evidence of human presence in Australia dating back 65,000 years, but we don't know how people got there. The oldest signs of modern humans in South East Asia are 45,000 years old. Could people have passed through those islands without leaving a trace?
One possible explanation is that our searches have focused on Timor, Flores, and Java, which are thought to represent the path taken to reach Australia.
However, Australian National University PhD student Shimona Kealy tried to look at the paths from the perspective of those making the migration. Kealy noted that the era's low sea levels meant it was possible to walk between some modern islands. More innovatively, she included access to fresh water, tracing the routes of rivers through these long-drowned coastal plains. Kealy also took into account the steepness of the slopes travelers faced and whether they could see the next island from the shore of the one they were leaving.
In the Journal of Human Evolution, Kealy concludes the easiest (or as she puts it “lowest cost”) path would have been to travel east from Sumatra – across what is now sea, but was then the outskirts of Borneo – to Sulawesi. From there, the path would have run through many smaller islands to New Guinea, a course dubbed the “Northern Route”.
“This study … acknowledges the bravery, innovation and maritime technologies and skills of these early modern humans," Kealy said in a statement.