Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Fission-track ages of stone tools and fossils on the east Indonesian island of Flores


The islands of Wallacea, located between the Southeast Asian (Sunda) and Australian (Sahul) continental areas, offer unique potential for the study of evolution and cultural change. Located east of Java and Bali, which were periodically connected to the Asian mainland, the Wallacean islands could only be reached by sea crossings. Consequently, before human intervention all these islands had impoverished faunas comprising only species that were capable of crossing water by swimming, rafting on flotsam, or by flying in sufficient numbers to establish biologically viable populations1. Here we report zircon fission-track dates from two fossil sites on the Wallacean island of Flores. Tangi Talo, which has an endemic fauna, dates to 0.90 ± 0.07 Myr bp, whereas Mata Menge, where stone tools are found with elements of continental Southeast Asian fauna, dates to between 0.88 ± 0.07 and 0.80 ± 0.07 Myr bp. Even at times when the sea level was lowest, water crossings were necessary to reach Flores from Southeast Asia. We conclude that Homo erectus in this region was capable of repeated water crossings using watercraft.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: The general location of Flores in east Indonesia.
Figure 2: The west baulk of the excavations at Mata Menge, showing the locations of fission-track samples MM1 and MM2 (marked by plus symbols).
Figure 3: Stone artefacts excavated from Mata Menge in 1994.
Figure 4: Single-grain age results in the form of simple histograms (left) and radial plots (right) from the three Mata Menge and Tangi Talo tuffaceous units MM1, MM2 and TT1.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Johnson, D. L. Problems in the land vertebrate zoogeography of certain islands and the swimming powers of elephants. J. Biogeog. 7, 383–398 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Sondaar, P. Y. et al. Middle Pleistocene faunal turnover and colonisation of Flores (Indonesia) by Homo erectus. C. R. Acad. Sci. 319, 1255–1262 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Morwood, M. J., Aziz, F., van den Bergh, G. D., Sondaar, P. Y. & de Vos, J. Stone artefacts from the 1994 excavation at Mata Menge, west central Flores, Indonesia. Austr. Archaeol. 44, 26–34 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Maringer, J. & Verhoeven, T. Die Steinartefakte aus der Stegodon—Fossilschicht von Mengeruda auf Flores, Indonesien. Anthropos 65, 229–247 (1970).

    Google Scholar 

  5. van den Bergh, G. D., Mubroto, B., Aziz, F., Sondaar, P. Y. & de Vos, J. in Indo-Pacific prehistory: the Chiang Mai Papers (Proc. 15th IPPA Congr. Chiang Mai, Thailand 1994 Vol. 1) (ed. Bellwood, P.) 27–36 (IPPA, Canberra, (1996)).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Lumbanbatu, U. M. & Aziz, F. Aspek fosil vertebrata dari Forasi Olabula, Flores. J. Geol. Sumberdaya Miner. 33, 2–6 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Berggren, W. A. et al. in Geochronology, Time Scales and Global Stratigraphic Correlation (eds Berggren, W. A. et al.) 129–212 (SEPM, Special publ. no. 54, Tulsa, (1995)).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Gleadow, A. J. W. Fission track ages of the KBS tuff and associated hominid remains in northern Kenya. Nature 284, 225–230 (1980).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. von Koenigswald, G. H. R. Atektite from the island of Flores (Indonesia). Proc. Koninklijke Nederlandse Akad. Wetenschappen B 61, 44–46 (1957).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Rightmire, G. P. in 100 Years of Pithecanthropus: the Homo erectus Problem (ed. Franzen, J. L.) 319–326 (Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg, Frankfurt, (1994)).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Birdsell, J. H. in Sunda and Sahul (eds Allen, J. et al.) 113–168 (Academic, London, (1977)).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Sondaar, P. Y. Pleistocene man and extinctions of island endemics. Mem. Soc. Geol. Fr. 150, 159–165 (1987).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Groves, C. P. in Perspectives in Human Biology, Vol. 2 (eds Rousham, E. & Freedman, L.) 83–87 (Univ. Western Australia, Perth, (1996)).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  14. Davis, S. Tiny elephants and giant mice. New Sci. 105, 25–27 (1985).

    Google Scholar 

  15. Azzaroli, A. About pygmy mammoths of the Northern Channel Islands and other island faunas. Quat. Res. 16, 423–425 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Allen, H. Stegodonts and the dating of stone tool assemblages in island S.E. Asia. Asian Persp. 30, 243–266 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Bellwood, P. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago (Academic, Sydney, (1985)).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Davidson, I. & Noble, W. Why the first colonisation of the Australian region is the earliest evidence of modern human behaviour. Archaeol. Oceania 27, 135–142 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Bowdler, S. in Sahul in Review (eds Smith, M. A. et al.) 60–70 (Australian National University, Canberra, (1993)).

    Google Scholar 

  20. Cherry, J. F. The first colonisation of the Mediterranean Islands. J. Med. Archaeol. 3, 145–221 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Thieme, H. Lower Palaeolithic hunting spears from Germany. Nature 385, 807–810 (1997).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Gleadow, A. J. W., Hurford, A. J. & Quaife, D. R. Fission track dating of zircon: improved etching techniques. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 33, 273–276 (1976).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Gleadow, A. J. W. Fission track dating methods: what are the real alternatives? Nucl. Tracks 5, 3–14 (1981).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Hurford, A. J. & Green, P. F. Ausers' guide to fission-track dating calibration. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 59, 343–354 (1982).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Green, P. F. Anew look at statistics in fission-track dating. Nucl. Tracks 5, 77–86 (1981).

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Galbraith, R. F. & Laslett, G. M. Statistical models for mixed fission track ages. Nucl. Tracks 21, 459–470 (1993).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


Fieldwork conducted between 1991 and 1994 by P. Sondaar, J. de Vos, G. van den Bergh and F.A. provided the basis for this investigation. Our 1997 fieldwork was undertaken under the auspices of the Indonesian Geological Research and Development Centre and was funded by a grant from the University of New England Vice Chancellor's Fund (we thank B. Thom for this support), and by the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering. We thank V. Paine for help with stratigraphic recording; R.Spikings for completing the mineral separations; D. Hobbs and K.Morwood for artwork; and I. Davidson, J. de Vos, P. Sondaar, D. Cogill, P. Brown, R. Gargett, C. Swisher, P.Bellwood and R.Roberts for discussion.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. J. Morwood.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Morwood, M., O'Sullivan, P., Aziz, F. et al. Fission-track ages of stone tools and fossils on the east Indonesian island of Flores. Nature 392, 173–176 (1998).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing