Letter

An early modern human presence in Sumatra 73,000–63,000 years ago

  • Nature volume 548, pages 322325 (17 August 2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nature23452
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Abstract

Genetic evidence for anatomically modern humans (AMH) out of Africa before 75 thousand years ago (ka)1 and in island southeast Asia (ISEA) before 60 ka (93–61 ka)2 predates accepted archaeological records of occupation in the region3. Claims that AMH arrived in ISEA before 60 ka (ref. 4) have been supported only by equivocal5 or non-skeletal evidence6. AMH evidence from this period is rare and lacks robust chronologies owing to a lack of direct dating applications7, poor preservation and/or excavation strategies8 and questionable taxonomic identifications9. Lida Ajer is a Sumatran Pleistocene cave with a rich rainforest fauna associated with fossil human teeth7,10. The importance of the site is unclear owing to unsupported taxonomic identification of these fossils and uncertainties regarding the age of the deposit, therefore it is rarely considered in models of human dispersal. Here we reinvestigate Lida Ajer to identify the teeth confidently and establish a robust chronology using an integrated dating approach. Using enamel–dentine junction morphology, enamel thickness and comparative morphology, we show that the teeth are unequivocally AMH. Luminescence and uranium-series techniques applied to bone-bearing sediments and speleothems, and coupled uranium-series and electron spin resonance dating of mammalian teeth, place modern humans in Sumatra between 73 and 63 ka. This age is consistent with biostratigraphic estimations7, palaeoclimate and sea-level reconstructions, and genetic evidence for a pre-60 ka arrival of AMH into ISEA2. Lida Ajer represents, to our knowledge, the earliest evidence of rainforest occupation by AMH, and underscores the importance of reassessing the timing and environmental context of the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by Australian Research Council Discovery grants (DP1093049, DP140100919, and DP120101752 to K.E.W., R.J.-B., and G.J.P. et al., respectively) and a Leaky Foundation grant and Research School of Asia and the Pacific Grant Development Support grant to J.L. C.S.’s research is supported by the Human Origins Research Fund and the Calleva Foundation. We acknowledge the Max Planck Society for funding micro-CT scanning of the teeth, A. Olejnicak and J. P. Zermeno for assistance with section preparation, and support provided by the Centre from Archaeology in Padang Sumatra and ARKENAS in Jakarta and for allowing access to the site and four fossil faunal teeth for dating. We thank the Department of Geology, Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, The Netherlands for providing access to Dubois’s fieldnote book, excavation details, the two modern human teeth for scanning and the Pongo tooth for dating, and we thank C. Bronk Ramsey for assistance with age modelling.

Author information

Author notes

    • R. Due Awe
    •  & M. J. Morwood

    Deceased.

Affiliations

  1. Department of Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales 2109, Australia

    • K. E. Westaway
  2. School of Culture, History, and Languages, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

    • J. Louys
  3. Indonesian Centre for Archaeology, Jl. Raya Condet Pejaten No. 4, Jakarta 12001, Indonesia

    • R. Due Awe
    • , E. W. Saptomo
    •  & B. Sulistyanto
  4. Centre for Archaeological Sciences, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • M. J. Morwood
    •  & G. D. van den Bergh
  5. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

    • G. J. Price
    •  & J.-x. Zhao
  6. Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit (PERAHU), Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland 4222, Australia

    • M. Aubert
  7. Southern Cross GeoScience, Southern Cross University, Military Road, Lismore, New South Wales 2480, Australia

    • R. Joannes-Boyau
  8. Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, 170 Kessels Road, Nathan, Queensland 4111, Australia

    • T. M. Smith
  9. Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, 11 Divinity Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • T. M. Smith
  10. School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury CT2 7NR, UK

    • M. M. Skinner
  11. Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, Leipzig 04103, Germany

    • M. M. Skinner
  12. Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD, UK

    • T. Compton
    •  & C. Stringer
  13. School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 2JD, UK

    • R. M. Bailey
  14. Department of Geology, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands

    • J. de Vos
  15. Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, Highfield Road, Southampton SO17 1BF, UK

    • A. W. G. Pike
  16. Geology Study Program, Institut Teknologi Bandung, Java, Indonesia

    • Y. Rizal
    • , J. Zaim
    • , W. D. Santoso
    •  & A. Trihascaryo
  17. Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

    • L. Kinsley

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Contributions

K.E.W., R.D.A., J.L., G.J.P., W.D.S. mapped and excavated the site and collected faunal and dating samples, K.E.W. conducted the red thermoluminescence and pIR-IRSL dating, J.-x.Z. and G.J.P. conducted the U-series measurements on the speleothem, while M.A. and L.K. conducted U-series profiling on the fossil teeth and R.J.-B. conducted the U-series/ESR dating. G.D.v.d.B. and R.D.A. analysed the fauna and M.J.M., G.D.v.d.B., J.d.V., Y.R., J.Z., W.D.S. and A.T. helped to find and organize access to the site. T.M.S. and J.d.V. conducted the micro-CT scanning of the teeth, and T.M.S. measured enamel thickness. T.C. and C.S. described the teeth and M.M.S. analysed the enamel–dentine junction. R.M.B. aided in the design of the dating approach and conducted the Bayesian modelling, while A.W.G.P. conducted the modelling of the U-series age estimates. Finally, E.W.S. and B.S. helped with the dating of the fauna and K.E.W., J.L., G.J.P., J.-x.Z., R.J.-B., G.D.v.d.B., M.A., T.M.S., T.C., M.M.S., C.S. and J.d.V. wrote the paper, with early contributions from M.J.M. and R.D.A.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to K. E. Westaway.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks G. Barker, R. Dennell and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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