Excavations at the limestone cave of Leang Bulu Bettue (Photo: Justin Mott/Mott Visuals).

Archaeologists have uncovered decorative jewellery made from the bones of exotic animals encountered during the first human dispersal to Wallacea – a zone of oceanic islands between South-east Asia and Australia – between 22,000 and 30,000 years ago.

A project, led by Adam Brumm and Michelle Langley at Griffith University (Australia), uncovered ancient ornaments during excavation in an inland cave on the island of Sulawesi.

The pendants include a polished finger bone of a bear cuscus, a tree-dwelling marsupial, which was drilled with a hole at the top and probably worn as a necklace. Researchers also discovered two beads made from the tooth of a babirusa or pig deer.

The site, Leang Bulu Bettue, is located close to some of the oldest cave art in the world – a 35,000-year-old painting of a babirusa and a 40,000-year-old hand stencil – and it dates to a key period of human colonisation in the regions to the south-east of continental Eurasia.

The ornaments of exotic animal bones suggest that as people encountered new faunas and other novel resources, they incorporated them into their symbolic world. As artistic development was spreading in prehistoric Europe, it appears that artistic and symbolic cultures were also flourishing at the same time on the other side of the world.

A rare ornament from the ‘Ice Age’ of Sulawesi. Dated to between 26,000 to 22,000 years ago, this humanly modified artefact consists of a drilled and perforated finger bone from an endemic bear cuscus (Photo: Luke Marsden/Griffith University).

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