Australia’s ancestors could be older than first thought after a team led by University of Wollongong researchers discovered artefacts in Sulawesi.

Key researchers Dr Gerrit van den Bergh and Dr Bo Li from the UOW Centre for Archaeological Science. Picture: Paul Jones

Key researchers Dr Gerrit van den Bergh and Dr Bo Li from the UOW Centre for Archaeological Science. Picture: Paul Jones

Australia’s ancestors could be 60,000 years older than first thought, according to new archaeological evidence found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Researchers believe the island may have been the stepping stone for the first people to arrive in Australia while it’s long been believed humans first entered Sulawesi sometime between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago. However a new study led by the Dr Gerrit van den Bergh from the University of Wollongong has proved otherwise.

The team’s excavations uncovered ancient stone tools and fossil remains of extinct and extant megafauna dating back more than 100,000 years.

The site at Talepu was initially discovered by Dr van den Bergh in 2007 while surveying the area with Mr Anwar Akib, from the local Cultural Heritage Department. The survey formed part of a collaboration between the Geological Agency of Indonesia and the late Professor Mike Morwood – also from UOW and leader of the team that discovered the “Hobbit” at Flores in 2003.

The major breakthrough for the recent study came in 2012 when Dr van den Bergh’s colleagues Dr Bo Li and Professor Richard Roberts sampled and dated the Talepu deposits.

The species of human who made the tools remains an enigma, as no human fossils have been found at Talepu. But the old ages suggest they were either an archaic lineage of humans or some of the earliest modern humans to reach Southeast Asia and the ancestors of the first people to arrive in Australia.

Dr van den Bergh didn’t exclude finding remains in the future of a “Hobbit” like the now infamous fossil found in Flores, and said the island may have been a “natural laboratory for human evolution”.

“If our hypothesis will prove to be correct … then we would expect to find evidence for the oldest occupation of Sulawesi to date back more than one million years ago,” he said. “If lucky, we might then find the fossil remains of the latest survivors of this ancient human lineage.”

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