(ORDO NEWS) — Three skeletons discovered in a rock shelter adorned with red pigment rock art attest to the burial rituals of early humans who followed well-worn paths through the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia, albeit thousands of years apart.
In addition to deepening our understanding of the evolution and diversification of funerary practices, the finds from Alor Island in southeastern Indonesia enrich past discoveries that previously provided some clues about the migration patterns of early humans moving south.
“The burials are a unique cultural display that allows us to explore waves of migration through the Late Pleistocene to the Holocene period in Southeast Asia,” says archaeologist Sophia Samper-Carro of the Australian National University.
From the positioning and treatment of bodies to the presence or absence of decorative headstones, Southeast Asian burial sites “offer a wide range of social manifestations associated with the burial of the dead,” write Samper-Carro and her colleagues in their paper.
Previous research shows Southeast Asia as a melting pot of ancient people who crossed and (possibly) interbred in a landscape that was very different during the Pleistocene, the last ice age.
Crossing islands, oceans, and now sunken land bridges, experienced navigators traveled further south until they crossed the Wallacea and set out for Australia, which at that time was annexed to New Guinea as part of a much larger landmass called Sahul.
With so many possible routes and scant archaeological data, it was difficult to determine which way and when people made these fateful migrations.
In previous work, Samper-Carro and colleagues began to piece together a more complete picture of the movement of modern humans across the islands of southeastern Indonesia, describing the earliest human remains in the region.
A comparative analysis of the results of the initial excavations showed that four waves of migration passed through the Lesser Sunda Islands, which include the island of Flores, where the researchers found a small Homo floresiensis.
“Our first excavation in 2014 revealed fish hooks and a human skull over 12,000 years old,” Samper-Carro says of the initial discovery in the Tron Bon Ley rock sheds, where skull fragments dating back 17,000 years were also found.
But there was more to this story. When the researchers returned to the burial site four years later to continue their excavations, extending it to the southeast, they found two more bodies buried in different positions, one on top of the other.
The first skeleton, dated to about 7,500 years old, lay in an oval grave studded with shell scales and framed with ocher stones. Beneath it was a 10,000-year-old skeleton buried in a sitting position in a round grave, the base of which was strewn with turbo shells.
Below was the body that belonged to the original 12,000-year-old skull. The woman was relatively short, the researchers concluded, which may reflect a somewhat genetically isolated population on the islands.
Also noteworthy is the hook for catching mollusks lying on the left side, located on the neck of an almost complete female skeleton. The researchers used this decoration to confirm the age of the remains.
Overall, they believe that these burials illustrate changes and continuity in the social behavior of modern humans, who appear to have repeatedly used the rock shelter on Alor Island as a burial site over the millennia.
“Three rather unusual and interesting burials show different burial practices, which may be related to the recent discoveries of numerous migratory routes through the Wallacei Islands dating back thousands of years,” Samper-Carro explains.
However, some features of these burials bear similarities to other graves found in the mainland and islands of Southeast Asia, which may indicate that early humans exchanged cultural information during migration. But it may also be that these burial practices originated locally.
Currently, genetic analysis of the remains is being carried out, as well as a study of the diet. The researchers expect that genetic profiling could reveal evidence of different migratory groups that gave rise to modern humans currently living on the islands.
“These further efforts will allow us to further understand the life paths of the communities that inhabited mainland and insular Southeast Asia during the Pleistocene and Holocene,” the team concludes.
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