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Artifacts Show Timor Island Was Colonized 45,000 Years Ago

Timing of settlement rules out the island as first ‘staging ground’ to reach Australia.

By Paul Smaglik
May 22, 2024 9:00 PMMay 22, 2024 8:59 PM
Major Migration
Professor Sue O’connor (left) and Dr. Shimona Kealy say the "major" migration to Timor Island was no accident. (Credit: Jamie Kidston/ANU)


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Timor Island might not have been a stepping stone. Many archeologists have theorized that the island, served as a sort of way station for travelers en route to destinations further south and east, like Australia. The island lies southeast of Indonesia and about 450 miles from Australia’s northern coast.

But the sheer number of artifacts — and the fact that many dated to the same time period about 45,000 years ago — instead indicates the island was targeted for colonization, according to a study in Nature Communications.

Signs of Human Settlement

The archeologists focused their effort on a cave named Laili, where they discovered an arrival signature — a drastic contrast in layers of sediment under the cave’s floor.

“Laili had an exceptionally dense layer of initial occupation material with dark organic sediment and hearths and hundreds of stone artifacts overlying sterile cave sediments, which were a pale yellow,” says Sue O’Connor, a professor at Australian National University and an author of the study. “The interface between these two units was strikingly clear.”

Besides indications of what was once a well-trod floor with several fireplaces, they found tens of thousands of stone artifacts.

“We rarely find occupation of this age so intact and well preserved […] not to mention abundant,” says O’Connor. “This is why we think initial occupation colonizing groups were quite big.”

To confirm that the cave settlement was likely the first human occupation on the island, Mike Morley, a professor at Flinders University, in Adelaide, Australia, performed chemical analysis on blocks of sediment from the excavation site as well as from other spots on the island. He found that the sediment beneath the human occupation layer from the cave sample was indeed sterile and lacked any signatures of the human occupation layer.

“This is the first time that we have found such evidence,” says O’Connor. “We have excavated over a dozen sites in Timor, and evidence for human occupation in the sites always extends down to the rocky cave base so we are never sure if we have found the earliest evidence for human arrival – because we have never found sterile sediments lacking human occupation.”

Read More: The 6 Most Iconic Artifacts From The Ancient World

Exploring Colonists

Confirming the colonization time also helps rule out the island as an early jumping-off point to Australia, since there is evidence that humans inhabited that continent before Timor Island. O’Connor suspects early migrants to Australia travelled via New Guinea.

As for the reasons why its first settlers stopped at the island, O’Connor believes that, contrary to some earlier opinions, the inhabitants didn’t randomly stumble upon it. Instead, the colonists likely checked out several nearby islands, since many of them are visible from each other.

“I think it is highly likely that colonists explored the islands that they could see when weather and sea conditions were calm,” O’Connor says. “To that extent I suppose you could say it was ‘intentional’, maybe intentional exploration to check out new resource zones rather than intentional colonization.”

Read More: Massive Ochre Cave Paintings are Traces of Ancient Human Migration in the Amazon

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul Smaglik spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

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