Prehistoric Teen’s DNA Sheds Light On Sulawesi's Mysterious Lost Culture
The remains of a young female who died around 7,200 years ago on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi have provided a startling insight into the geographical movements of early modern humans. Unearthed during excavations of the Leang Panninge limestone cave in 2015, the ancient skeleton is a truly rare find, as it is the first to be discovered with intact DNA. The remains were found in Wallacea, a vast chain of islands that stretches between mainland Asia and Australia. Researchers believe that the female was somewhere between 17 to 18 years old at the time of her death.
Christened “Besse” by her discoverers, the dead teen has been linked to an enigmatic prehistoric community called the Toaleans ? a culture still largely veiled in mystery. The little information that has been found about their existence indicates that they lived around 1,500 to 8,000 years ago in a small southwestern corner of Sulawesi. Excavated artifacts have suggested that the Toaleans were hunter-gatherers who had subsisted on wild pigs and shellfish from creeks and estuaries. Efforts to learn more about the Toaleans, however, have been severely hindered by a lack of reliably dated human remains, until now.
Finding intact DNA in the Southeast Asian area is uncommon, to say the least. The humid tropical climate is known to be very unforgiving for DNA preservation, and indeed, Besse’s remains were also greatly degraded by the time that they were discovered. Fortunately, after a long and grueling process, Selina Carloff, the study’s lead author, was able to extract DNA from the wedge-shaped petrous bone at the base of Besse’s skull. What was found revealed some fascinating facts about the young woman’s lineage.
Firstly, the results confirmed the researchers’ previous theory that the Toaleans were descended from the first wave of modern humans to enter Wallacea more than 50,000 years ago. These early modern humans are believed to have traveled through the Wallacea islands as they migrated to Sahul, where they became the ancestors of the present-day Indigenous Australians and Papuans. Researchers believe that they had used some kind of sophisticated watercraft to cross the waters, as there had not been any sort of land bridges between the islands at that time.
Secondly, and more astoundingly, the DNA analyses also uncovered an ancient link to East Asia that challenges what was previously known about the timeline of migration to Wallacea. Previously, it was thought that the first time people with predominantly Asian ancestry entered Wallacea was around about 3,500 years ago when farmers from Neolithic Taiwan moved down through the Philippines and into Indonesia. But now, researchers are faced with the possibility that there might have been an even earlier movement of some populations from Asia into this region.
Lastly, Besse’s genome showed traces of another extinct group of humans ? the Denisovans. The few fossils indicating these early humans’ existence were largely found in Siberia and Tibet. The fact that Denisovan genes were found in a Toalean female supports an earlier hypothesis that the Denisovans occupied a far larger geographical area than previously understood.
Yesel Kang Staff Reporter
1. When did the young female Toalean die?
2. Who are the Toaleans?
3. What did Besse’s genome show traces of?
1. What do you think about this new discovery?
2. What other archaeological discoveries have you heard of recently?
3. What do you know about the geographical movements (spread) of early modern humans?
4. Do you know of any other ancient cultures or people that have died out?