#AceNewsReport – Aug.27: Members of her hunter-gatherer culture, the Toaleans, filled in the grave, and there she remained undisturbed for more than 7,000 years — until she was unearthed by Indonesian archaeologists in 2015…..
#AceDailyNews says that curled up in the bottom of a shallow, oval-shaped pit, legs hugged to her chest, a young woman was laid to rest on the island of Sulawesi: Nicknamed Bessé’ after a south Sulawesi royal naming custom, she was found in a high-ceilinged limestone cavern named Leang Panninge, or “Bat Cave”, and unveiled today in the journal Nature.
Large water-worn rocks, taken from a nearby river, were placed either side of her head and on top of her body.
Her skeleton provided the first ancient human DNA from what is considered the early migration gateway to Australia — and harboured tantalising signs of a Asian population we didn’t know existed until now.
It appears this mysterious group made their way into southern Sulawesi after the first people arrived in Papua New Guinea and Australia, says archaeologist and study co-author Adam Brumm from Griffith University.
“It seems as though there was this other wave of modern human colonisation of the region, which we’re only now seeing evidence for because we have an ancient genome from this Toalean woman.”
The importance of Indonesia
The earliest evidence for human occupation in what is now Australia is 65,000 years old, yet the picture of exactly when and how humans migrated over the millennia is still a bit hazy.
Most archaeologists are confident that the first inhabitants made their way through a bunch of South-East Asian islands collectively known as Wallacea.
Thousands of years ago, sea levels were far lower than they are today.
This meant islands like Borneo, Sumatra and Java were connected by land, and Australia and Papua New Guinea were a single landmass called Sahul.
It’s thought humans could have reached Sahul in a few ways, says University of Adelaide evolutionary biologist Bastien Llamas, who was not involved with the study.
For instance, one route extended from Java to Timor, then across the ocean to reach Sahul, while another winded its way from Sumatra to what is now the southern ends of Borneo and Sulawesi, then involved island-hopping to Sahul.
And archaeologists have found some signs of human inhabitants throughout the region from around the time they think humans migrated through South-East Asia.Scientists say this warty pig is the oldest-known animal painting on the planetMore than 45,500 years ago, perched on a ledge at the back of a cave on the island of Sulawesi, an artist painted three warty pigs in dark red pigment.
Professor Brumm and colleagues previously found paintings of pigs, in a cave not far from Leang Panninge, were at least 45,500 years old.
Other signs of human occupation in Wallacea, such as stone tools, have been found dating back to around that time too.
The Toaleans were a more recent population. They lived a fairly secluded existence as hunter-gatherers in the southern Sulawesi forests from around 8,000 to 1,500 years ago, Professor Brumm said.
Carbon-dated pollen grains from the sediment surrounding Bessé”s remains place her living between 7,200 and 7,300 years ago, and her bones signal she was around 17 or 18 years old when she died.
There were no clues as to how she died, with no obvious signs of injuries or infections that leave their mark in bone.
The archaeologists did find serrated, comb-like arrowheads typical of Toaleans in the grave with her, which may have been a ritual offering but could also have unintentionally fallen in, Professor Brumm said.
However, the stones placed around and on her body might have meaning.
“These burials are oftentimes associated with rocks, which maybe symbolically were involved with keeping the person’s spirit from leaving their bodies, possibly — but that’s pure speculation.”
And while burial sites, art and artefacts give insights into the cultural practices of people who lived in Wallacea over the millennia, DNA provides a snapshot of their ancestry.
Story told by ancient DNA
Unfortunately, fossilised remains in Wallacea are rare, and DNA from them even rarer. That’s because DNA breaks down in the heat and humidity of the tropics, and microbes don’t mind munching on it either.
Teasing apart fragments of human DNA from that of microbes, too, can be an incredibly tricky task.
Before Bessé’, genetic information had only been successfully extracted from two skeletons from the surrounding region — one in Laos and the other in Peninsular Malaysia — which dated back around 8,000 and 4,400 years respectively.
So when the teenage hunter-gatherer was unearthed from the relatively cool and stable environment of a cave floor, she had the potential to provide usable DNA.
The DNA was extracted from a pyramid-shaped, dense bone attached to the inside of her skull called the petrous bone. Its name comes from the Latin petrosus, meaning “rocky”.
The petrous bone’s hardness means if DNA could be preserved, that’s where it was most likely found, says Morten Allentoft, an evolutionary biologist at Curtin University who was not involved in the study.
“It’s so dense that bacteria and fungi cannot enter,” he said.
“Water doesn’t get in, and air doesn’t get in. It is the best-preserved bone in the mammalian body.”
Samples of the bone were sent for DNA analysis at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
Despite being encased in a buried petrous bone, Bessé”s DNA was incredibly degraded and much of it was irretrievable, said Selina Carlhoff, a PhD student at the institute and lead author of the paper.
“Percentage-wise, we recovered around 2 per cent of the complete genome from the Leang Panninge individual.”
Despite this seemingly low amount of DNA, it was enough to delve into Bessé”s genetic ancestry.
“There may be methods in the future that are able to recover even further degraded DNA, which would of course be interesting to try for this individual,” Ms Carlhoff said.
It turned out Bessé’ shared around half her genetic makeup with present-day Indigenous Australian and Papuan people.
Professor Brumm suspected a wave of migration went through Sulawesi, and some people stayed on while others kept going to eventually reach Sahul.
“Essentially, she’s a distant relative of modern-day Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians.”
But her genome revealed she also descended from an as yet unknown population that originated in Asia — a population that may still have descendants today, but could also have died out.
People who live in Sulawesi today mostly descend from Neolithic farmers who moved into the region from Taiwan about 3,500 years ago. None had ancestry resembling Bessé”s.
“It was thought the earliest influx of Asian DNA occurred during the Neolithic farming transition, when Austronesian-speaking populations swept down from modern-day Taiwan and into Indonesia,” Professor Brumm said.
“They brought with them the first understanding of how to cultivate plants, how to domesticate animals, pottery and other classic Neolithic technologies.”
The new results, he added, “suggests that there was an earlier influx of Asian genes that long predates the Austronesian expansion”.
The hunt continues
Despite the low odds of DNA preservation in places like Sulawesi, there could be more skeletons like Bessé”s, perhaps older, waiting to be found.
In June this year, another team reported 11,000-year-old human DNA from hot, humid southern China.
“Suddenly, you find these ancient samples and you start filling in all these gaps,” Professor Allentoft said.
“And this is where you can see the merging of archaeology and genetics becomes so important.”
Leang Panninge, the cave in which Bessé’ was found, is up in the highlands where it’s cooler, and away from rivers that might wind their way through and wash away the precious sediments.
If you’re going to find preserved DNA in Indonesia, it’s probably going to be in a similar environment, Dr Llamas said.
“Despite the fact that [Indonesia] is in this subtropical area, there’s a lot of high mountains and caves, so that could be the saving grace.
“We could get enough genetic information to give us even a slightly blurry picture of what happened.”
Excavations at Leang Panninge will continue, but they were almost over before they started, Professor Brumm said.
It was earmarked as the site of water park, with plans to build a water slide outside the entrance and install a roadway through the cave to let people travel through it.
“It would have involved bulldozing the extremely rich Toalean archaeological deposit that had built up at the front, where we excavated and found the body of this woman,” Professor Brumm said.
He hopes this latest discovery will put an end to the water park plans.
“It’s pretty alarming, but I think we’ve managed to block it now.”
And Bessé”s bones, at least, are safe from the bulldozers.
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