Detecting the Pleistocene dawn of cultural awakening

Published 03 April 2017

Most of us would pass over the tiny reddish tint on a flake of white rock found in a Sulawesi cave, but for University of New England archaeologist Dr Mark Moore, it was valuable evidence of a Pleistocene cultural awakening in the Indonesian archipelago.

Dr Moore’s analysis of the flake, found in a strata of material laid down 30,000-22,000 years ago, showed that the red tint was ground ochre, a key ingredient in human ceremony and painting up to the present day.

“It is another piece of evidence that the first humans to live in this region had a symbolic culture to match that of Europe,” Dr Moore said.

“Our understanding of the development of symbolic culture in humans has been very European-centric, because of the famous paintings in cave complexes like those at Lascaux and Chauvet.”

“But our work at the Leang Bulu Bettue cave in Sulawesi shows a rich culture of personal ornamentation, cave painting and symbolic thinking around endemic animals. It is compelling evidence that early humans in the region were not fundamentally out of step with cultural developments in Europe, as was once thought. They were doing the same things at the same time.”

Dr Moore worked on the project as part of an extensive team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists. Their excavations produced a trove of carved bones, inscribed stone tools, cave paintings and evidence of ochre use, the base material for painting and personal transformation in indigenous ceremony.

The team has published its findings today in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in a paper titled “Early human symbolic behaviour in the Late Pleistocene of Wallacea”.

(Another co-author of the paper, Yinika Perston, is a Science Honours graduate of UNE. She is presently in Jogjakarta on the New Colombo Plan.)

The paper proposes that rather than being culturally “out of step” with Pleistocene Europe, the Indonesian islands between Australia and Asia have simply not yet revealed their Pleistocene secrets.

Only a single site showing early human colonisation has been found on Borneo, despite the island being 15.5% larger than France. In the Wallacea bioregion, where Dr Moore’s team worked, there are only seven known early human sites across about 2000 islands.

Dr Moore, who leads UNE’s Stone Tools and Cognition Hub, believes the issue is one of site discovery, not “cultural degeneration” as has previously been argued.

The ochre-tipped stone flake found at Leang Bulu Bettue was presumed to have been used to scrape ochre from its base material prior to grinding, or to retouch ochre cave paintings.

Other stone flakes had light patterns scratched into them. This decoration reinforced the idea that their human makers were thinking beyond mere function.

The team also found that the cave’s ancient occupants distinguished between one sort of endemic pig and Sulawesi’s bizarrely five-tusked native babirusa pig.

Bone fragments showed that the babirusa was used for ornamentation or ceremony, suggesting the species had a symbolic importance; the remains of the other species shows it was eaten.

Dr Moore said the Leang Bulu Bettue findings, with other discoveries across South-East Asia and Africa, is increasingly supporting the idea that human symbolic culture arose in Africa and dispersed in the great human diaspora that occurred about 50,000 years ago.

IMAGE: Dr Mark Moore, who leads UNE’s Stone Tools and Cognition Hub, with a stone flake carrying traces of ochre, found at Leang Bulu Bettue in Sulawesi.