Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia

Abstract

Homo floresiensis, a primitive hominin species discovered in Late Pleistocene sediments at Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia)1,2,3, has generated wide interest and scientific debate. A major reason this taxon is controversial is because the H. floresiensis-bearing deposits, which include associated stone artefacts2,3,4 and remains of other extinct endemic fauna5,6, were dated to between about 95 and 12 thousand calendar years (kyr) ago2,3,7. These ages suggested that H. floresiensis survived until long after modern humans reached Australia by ~50 kyr ago8,9,10. Here we report new stratigraphic and chronological evidence from Liang Bua that does not support the ages inferred previously for the H. floresiensis holotype (LB1), ~18 thousand calibrated radiocarbon years before present (kyr cal. bp), or the time of last appearance of this species (about 17 or 13–11 kyr cal. bp)1,2,3,7,11. Instead, the skeletal remains of H. floresiensis and the deposits containing them are dated to between about 100 and 60 kyr ago, whereas stone artefacts attributable to this species range from about 190 to 50 kyr in age. Whether H. floresiensis survived after 50 kyr ago—potentially encountering modern humans on Flores or other hominins dispersing through southeast Asia, such as Denisovans12,13—is an open question.

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Figure 1: Site location.
Figure 2: Composite stratigraphic section of deposits at Liang Bua, with approximate ages.
Figure 3: Stratigraphy of excavated Sectors near the eastern wall of the cave.

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Acknowledgements

The 2007–2014 excavations at Liang Bua were supported by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grant to M.J.M. (DP0770234), a Waitt Foundation/National Geographic Society grant to M.W.T. and T.S. (No. 2121-2) and a Smithsonian Scholarly Studies Program award to M.W.T. Additional funding was provided by the Peter Buck Fund for Human Origins Research, the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, the University of Wollongong (UOW) and the ARC (DP1093049 to K.E.W.). T.S. is supported by a UOW postgraduate scholarship, M.W.T. by a Canada Research Chair, M.A. and A.B. by ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards (DE140100254 and DE130101560, respectively), B.L. by an ARC Future Fellowship (FT14010038), R.G.R. by an ARC Australian Laureate Fellowship (FL130100116) and B.V.A. by a Victoria University of Wellington Science Faculty Research Grant (201255). QUADLAB is funded by the Villum Foundation. Fieldwork was authorised by Pusat Penelitian Arkeologi Nasional (Jakarta, Indonesia) and Pemerintah Daerah Kabupaten Manggarai (Flores, Nusa Tenggara Timur). We also thank I Made Geria, V. N. Sene, R. Potts, P. Goldberg, K. Douka, G. Veatch, V. Rossi, A. Metallo, L. Kinsley, Y. Jafari, T. Lachlan, A. D. Nguyen, D. Yurnaldi, R. Setiawan, I Dewa Kompiang and the entire Liang Bua Team from Teras, Golo Manuk and Bere.

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Contributions

M.J.M., R. P. Soejono and R.G.R. conceived and coordinated the original research program at Liang Bua (2001–2004). The new excavations were planned and directed by T.S., E.W.S. and M.J.M. (2007–2009), and by T.S., M.W.T., E.W.S., J. and M.J.M. (2010–2014). T.S. led the stratigraphic analyses, with major contributions from M.W.T., S.W., M.J.M., K.E.W., R.D.A., E.W.S. and J., and additional input from M.W.M., H.J.M.M., G.D.vdB., B.V.A., A.B., W.L.J. and R.G.R. Dating analyses were conducted by B.L. and R.G.R. (IRSL), K.E.W. (TL), M.A., R.G. and A.D. (234U/230Th, bones), J.-x.Z. (234U/230Th, speleothems), and M.S. (40Ar/39Ar). B.V.A. analysed the volcanic tephra, R.D.A., H.J.M.M., G.D.vdB., M.W.T. and W.L.J. analysed the faunal remains, and J. analysed the stone artefacts. T.S., M.W.T. and R.G.R. wrote the paper, with early contributions from M.J.M. and additional input from all other authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Thomas Sutikna or Matthew W. Tocheri or Richard G. Roberts.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Stratigraphy of the excavated area near the eastern cave wall at eight stages of depositional history, with approximate ages indicated.

a–h, Each panel shows the remnant deposits exposed in the 2-m-wide baulks of the following Sectors (from left to right): north VII, east VII, XI and XXIII, south XXIII and XXI, west XXI, XV and XVI, and north XVI. The pedestal deposits shown in b–d were truncated by one or more phases of erosion that resulted in an erosional surface (that is, an unconformity) that slopes steeply down towards the cave mouth (see also Supplementary Video 1). The black arrows relate to the accompanying text in each panel. The maximum depth excavated was 10.75 m in Sector VII (for example, the left two panels in h).

Extended Data Figure 2 Deposits containing the remains of Homo floresiensis.

These deposits (A) consist of multiple layers of fine-grained sediment interspersed with layers of weathered limestone and loose gravel, and are directly overlain by two tephras (T1 and T2). a, South baulk of Sector XV, near the eastern cave wall. b, West baulk of Sector XV, also showing the unconformably overlying deposits (B). c, d, North and east baulks of Sector XIX, near the cave centre.

Extended Data Figure 3 The volcaniclastic deposits at Liang Bua.

a, Photograph of tephras T6–T8 (north baulk of Sector XVI). b, Photograph of tephras T1–T5 (south baulk of Sector XXI). c, Bivariate plot of FeO and CaO concentrations (expressed as weight %), acquired by electron microprobe analysis of glass shards from T1 (n = 6), T3 (n = 4), T5 (n = 10) and T7 (n = 15), as well as the Youngest Toba Tuff (YTT, n = 207, ± 1σ) from northern Sumatra. d, Bivariate plot of FeO and K2O concentrations (symbols as in c). e, Bivariate plot of SiO2 and Na2O + K2O concentrations (symbols as in c). f, Isotope correlation (inverse isochron) plot for hornblende crystals from T1. The error ellipses represent individual analyses (n = 28). The ellipse on the far right-hand side was omitted from the 40Ar/39Ar age determination of 79 ± 12 kyr (at 1σ).

Extended Data Figure 4 Erosional surface of the pedestal in the west baulks of Sectors XV and XVI.

The dashed line marks the steeply sloping boundary between remnant deposits (T2, T1 and the underlying Homo floresiensis-bearing sediments) that comprise part of the pedestal (A) and the much younger deposits (B) that unconformably overlie the contact. a, Photograph taken at an upward angle showing the sedimentary differences between the deposits above and below the erosional boundary. b, Illustration of the erosional surface and underlying deposits shown in a.

Extended Data Figure 5 Erosional surface of the pedestal near the eastern wall of the cave.

a, Illustration of the erosional surface and the locations of LB1, LB4, LB6 and LB8 below the boundary (see also Fig. 3). The deposits that unconformably overlie the pedestal are shown in the south and west baulks. The stippled cube outlines the photographed area (in Sector XV) shown in b and c. Both photographs taken from above, with north towards the bottom of the page.

Extended Data Figure 6 Locations of sediment samples dated in this study and TL data for quartz grains from Liang Bua.

a, Stratigraphy of the excavated area near the eastern cave wall (Sector baulks as in Extended Data Fig. 1) with TL samples indicated by red circles, IRSL samples by blue circles and the 40Ar/39Ar sample by a yellow square. Also shown are the TL and IRSL sample codes and the locations of hominin remains LB1 and LB6. b, Representative isothermal (260 °C) TL decay curves for the natural (black line) and test dose (grey line) signals from sample LB08-15-3. c, d, Regenerated TL dose–response curves for one pair of Aliquots A and B of sample LB08-15-3, respectively; the equivalent dose (De) is estimated by projecting the natural signal (red square) on to the dose–response curve fitted to the regenerated signals (blue diamonds). e, Radial plot47,48 of De values for Aliquot A (n = 12) of sample LB08-15-3; the grey band is centred on the weighted mean De calculated using the central age model. f, Radial plot of the corresponding De values for Aliquot B (n = 12) of the same sample. The grey band is centred on the central age model estimate, with the two high-De outliers omitted. The red line intersects the right-hand axis at the De calculated by fitting the minimum age model47,48 to all 12 values. g, h, Radial plots of De values for Aliquots A and B of sample LB12-23-1 (symbols as in e and f).

Extended Data Figure 7 IRSL data and potassium (K) concentrations for feldspar grains from Liang Bua.

a, Representative IRSL (50 °C) and multiple elevated temperature (100–250 °C) post-infrared IRSL (pIRIR) decay curves for a single aliquot of sample LB12-OSL1. b, IRSL (50 °C) and pIRIR (290 °C) decay curves for a different aliquot of LB12-OSL1. c, Regenerated pIRIR (290 °C) dose–response curve for the aliquot shown in b; the equivalent dose (De) is estimated by projecting the natural signal (red square) on to the dose–response curve fitted to the regenerated signals (blue diamonds). d–j, Radial plots of IRSL ages (corrected for residual dose and anomalous fading) for single aliquots of each sample: d, LB12-OSL1; e, LB12-OSL2; f, LB12-OSL3; g, LB12-OSL4; h, LB12-OSL5; i, LB12-OSL6; and j, LB12-OSL7. IRSL ages were also obtained for single grains of samples LB12-OSL3 and LB12-OSL4, and are shown as open triangles in f and g. The grey bands in each plot are centred on the weighted mean ages calculated using the central age model. k, l, Radial plots of IRSL ages (corrected as for d–j) for samples LBS7-40a and LBS7-42a, respectively; single aliquots are shown as filled circles and single grains as open triangles. The upper and lower red lines intersect the right-hand axis at the maximum and minimum single-grain ages, respectively. m, Distribution of pIRIR intensities from 28 individual grains of feldspar from sample LB12-OSL3 that had been given a regenerative dose of 80 Gy. The relative contribution of each grain to the total (cumulative) pIRIR light sum is plotted as a function of K concentration (measured by wavelength-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy); note the reversed scale on the x-axis. n, Cumulative pIRIR light sum for the same 28 grains as shown in m, plotted as a function of grains ranked by K concentration (which decreases from left to right).

Extended Data Figure 8 Laser-ablation uranium-series analyses of hominin bone fragments from various Sectors and spits (depth intervals), and their modelled ages.

a, Modern human femur (132A/LB/27D/03) from Sector IV, spit 27 (265–275 cm). b, Homo floresiensis ulna (LB1/52) from Sector XI, spit 58A (575–585 cm). c, H. floresiensis ulna (LB2/1) from Sector IV, spit 42D (415–425 cm). d, H. floresiensis ulna (LB6/3) from Sector XI, spit 51 (505–515 cm). Each laser spot is 265 μm in diameter and the age errors are at 2σ.

Extended Data Figure 9 Laser-ablation uranium-series analyses of bone fragments of Stegodon florensis insularis from various spits (depth intervals) in Sector XI, and their modelled ages.

a, U-s-01/LB/XI/32/04, spit 32 (315–325 cm). b, U-s-02/LB/XI/45/04, spit 45 (445–455 cm). c, U-s-03/LB/XI/47/04, spit 47 (465–475 cm). d, U-s-04/LB/XI/49/04, spit 49 (485–495 cm). e, U-s-05/LB/XI/51/04, spit 51 (505–515 cm). f, U-s-06/LB/XI/52/04, spit 52 (515–525 cm). g, U-s-07/LB/XI/65/04, spit 65 (645–655 cm). h, U-s-08/LB/XI/65B/04, spit 65B (645–655 cm). Each laser spot is 265 μm in diameter and the age errors are at 2σ.

Extended Data Figure 10 Deposits stratigraphically above the unconformity in Sector XVI and displaced slab of deposit in Sector XXII.

a, The north baulk (~2 m wide) of Sector XVI. b, Excavated floors (white arrow points north) of spits 61–63 (615–635 cm depth); the field of view is ~1.6 m in width. The stippled box in a indicates the floor of spit 63 in b, where fragments of T1 (+) are visible in spit 63, and fragments of T3 (*) and T1 are concentrated in the band just above the label for spit 61. Eroded fragments (between about 1 cm and 60 cm in size) of T1, T2 and T3 have been consistently recovered from deposits unconformably overlying the erosional surface of the pedestal, indicating reworking of the pedestal deposits before ~13 kyr cal. bp. c, Photograph of the west baulk and parts of the south and north baulks (at left and right, respectively) of Sector XXII showing a displaced slab of deposit that contains intact portions of the uppermost part of T3 (arrow) and the overlying layers, up to and including the flowstone (fs) that caps T5. The stratigraphic position of the slab beneath T7 and T8 indicates that it broke away from its original location, slightly to the south, and slid down the steeply sloping erosional surface before ~13 kyr cal. bp. Also shown are the Homo floresiensis-bearing deposits (A) and the unconformably overlying deposits (B), which include eroded fragments of T1 (+), T2 (#) and T3 (*). d, Illustration of the west baulk of Sector XXII, as shown in c.

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This file contains Supplementary Information sections 1-6 which contain a Supplementary Discussion and Supplementary Tables 1-8 – see contents page for details. (PDF 995 kb)

Animated summary of the stratigraphy and chronology of the Liang Bua depositional sequence.

Animated summary of the stratigraphy and chronology of the Liang Bua depositional sequence. (WMV 29745 kb)

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Sutikna, T., Tocheri, M., Morwood, M. et al. Revised stratigraphy and chronology for Homo floresiensis at Liang Bua in Indonesia. Nature 532, 366–369 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17179

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