Archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU) have unearthed a 37,000-year-old decorative shell bead on the eastern tip of East Timor, providing further evidence that the first modern people of South East Asian were more culturally advanced than previously thought.
Researcher Dr Michelle Langley of the ANU School of Culture History & Language said this is the oldest shell bead ever found in the region and the discovery challenges the idea that Pleistocene South East Asia was a cultural backwater compared to early Europe.
"There's always been a big focus on Europe as a place where early people had sophisticated art and complex societies. But now we are seeing new discoveries in South East Asia, like the early rock art in Sulawesi, which suggests that people in this region were just as culturally complex," Dr Langley said.
"Now we have these shell beads, some that are about the same age as the earliest modern human communities in Europe.
"It shows that the first modern people of South East Asia were just as culturally complex as those in Europe and Africa AND that it was not the cultural backwater as it was once thought to be."
The bead was one of about 480 dug up in the caves of Jerimalai, Lene Hara, and Matja Kuru - all found on the eastern tip of East Timor.
Dr Langley said the beads were easy to tell apart from naturally altered shells, in part owing to the presence of man-made red ochre residue.
"Either they were painting their bodies and the ochre was getting accidentally rubbed onto the beads, or they were painting their clothing and the beads rubbed against that," she said.
"Most of them are very worn, suggesting that they were used for a long time before they were lost or thrown away.
"They date right up until the near present. That's really significant because it means for almost 40,000 years people were making and using this same type of shell bead.
"These beads must have had some kind of special significance to the community."
Fascinatingly, analysis of the shell beads shows there was a period around 5,000 years ago where they seemed to get more intensively used.
"The wear is more severe," she said.
"The time frame coincides with sea-level stabilisation so there might have been some changes in the way the local people used the landscape, or some social tension because resources were changing and people needed to sort out who owns what."
The discovery was made as part of the ANU-led and Australian Research Council (ARC) funded expedition led by Professor Sue O'Connor. The project aims to track the earliest migration of modern humans from Africa down through South East Asia and Australia.
The dig previously unearthed the world's oldest fish hooks and evidence for Pelagic fishing 42,000-years-ago, demonstrating that humans began deep-sea fishing earlier than previously thought.
The findings have been detailed in a paper published in PLos One. You can view the paper here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161071