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August 26, 2021

by Adam Brumm, Adhi Oktaviana, Akin Duli, Basran Burhan, Cosimo Posth, Selina Carlhoff, The Conversation

In 2015, archaeologists from Hasanuddin University in Makassar on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi discovered the skeleton of a woman buried in a limestone cave. Studies have shown that the person from Leang Panninge or “Bat Cave” was 17 or 18 years old when they died about 7,200 years ago.

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Her discoverers called her Bessé (pronounced “bur-sek”) – a nickname given to newborn princesses among the Bugis who now live in southern Sulawesi. The name shows the great esteem local archaeologists hold for this old woman.

It represents the only known skeleton of one of the Toaleans. These enigmatic hunters and gatherers inhabited the island before Neolithic farmers from mainland Asia (“Austronesians”) spread to Indonesia about 3,500 years ago.

Our team found ancient DNA that survived in the inner ear bone of Bessé, “which gives us the first direct genetic evidence of the Toaleans. This is also the first time that ancient human DNA from Wallacea, the vast archipelago between Borneo., and New Guinea, of which Sulawesi is the largest.

Genome analysis shows that Bessé belonged to a population with a previously unknown ancestral composition, sharing about half of its genetic makeup with today’s indigenous Australians and people in New Guinea and in the United States This includes DNA inherited from the now-extinct Denisovans who were distant cousins ​​of Neanderthals.

Indeed, the proportion of Denisova DNA in Bessé compared to other ancient and present groups in suggest that the main meeting point between our species and Denisovans is in Sulawesi itself (or perhaps a nearby Wallacea Island) lay.

The ancestry of this preneolithic woman offers fascinating insights into the little-known population history and genetic diversity of the early modern humans on the Wallaceen Islands – the gateway to the continent of Australia.

The archaeological history of the Toaleans began before more than a century. In 1902 the Swiss naturalists Paul and Fritz Sarasin excavated several caves in the highlands of South Sulawesi.

Their excavations unearthed small, finely crafted stone arrowheads known as maros points. They also found other characteristic stone and bone tools that they ascribed to the indigenous people of Sulawesi – the prehistoric “Toalien” (now Toalean).

Some Toalean caves have since been excavated to a higher scientific standard, but our understanding of this culture is still at an early stage. The oldest known Maros points and other toaleic artifacts date from around 8,000 years ago.

Unearthed finds from caves suggest that the Toaleans were hunters and gatherers who preyed on wild endemic warthogs and gathered edible shellfish from streams and estuaries. So far, evidence of the group has only been found in part of South Sulawesi.

Toalean artifacts disappeared from archaeological records in the fifth century AD – several thousand years after the island’s first Neolithic settlements.

Prehistorians have long tried to find out who the Toaleans were, but efforts have been hampered by a lack of safely dated human remains. This all changed with the discovery of Bessé and the ancient DNA in their bones.

Our results mean we can now confirm existing assumptions that the Toaleer were related to the first modern humans, around 65,000 years ago or less invaded Wallacea more. These seafaring hunters and gatherers were the ancestors of the Australian Aborigines and Papuans.

They were also the first to inhabit Sahul, the supercontinent that formed during the Pleistocene (Ice Age) when global sea levels fell and exposed a land bridge between Australia and New Guinea. To reach Sahul, these pioneering people made ocean crossings through Wallacea, but little is known about their travels.

It is conceivable that Bessé’s ancestors were among the first to reach Wallacea. Instead of island hopping to Sahul, however, they stayed in Sulawesi.

Our analyzes also showed a deep ancestral signature of an early modern human population that originated somewhere in continental Asia. These ancestors of Bessé did not mix with the ancestors of the Australian Aborigines and Papuans, suggesting that they may have come to the region after the first settlement of Sahul – but long before the Austronesian expansion.

Who were these people? When did they arrive in the region and how common were they? We are unlikely to have answers to these questions until we have more older human DNA samples and preneolithic fossils from Wallacea. This unexpected find shows us how little we know about early human history in our region.

With funds from the Discovery Program of the Australian Research Council, we are initiating a new project that will explore the world of the Toalean in more detail. We hope to learn more about the development of this unique hunter-gatherer culture through archaeological excavations at Leang Panninge.

We would also like to address longstanding questions about the Toalean social organization and way of life. For example, some scholars have concluded that the Toaleans were so populous that these hitherto small and dispersed groups of collectors settled in large sedentary communities and possibly even domesticated wild boars.

Recently, it has also been speculated that Toaleer was the mysterious Asiatic Seafarers who visited Australia in ancient times and introduced the dingo (or more precisely the domesticated ancestor of this now wild canid). Obviously, there is still a lot to discover about the long island history of Bessé and her relatives.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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