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Lost lineage

The remains of a woman buried 7,200 years ago in Southeast Asia offer clues to lost lineage of humans.

Archaeologists on the island of Sulawesi in Southeast Asia call her Bessé, a term of high esteem among the Bugis people of southern Sulawesi. The 17- to 18-year old woman was buried in Leang Panninge Cave about 7,200 years ago. She is the only surviving skeleton of the enigmatic hunter-gatherers known as Toaleans, who lived on Sulawesi before farmers from mainland Asia spread into Indonesia about 3,500 years ago. Fortunately, the researchers were able to collect DNA from inside her inner ear bone, the first ancient DNA collected from the offshore Southeast Asian islands.

Bessé’s genetic makeup was half from indigenous Australians and people in New Guinea and the western Pacific. This includes a significant amount of DNA inherited from now-extinct Denisovans, contemporaries of the Neanderthals. This may mean that the Toaleans were related to the first modern humans to settle on Sulawesi, perhaps as early as 65,000 years ago. The Toaleans lived on Sulawesi as early as 8,000 years ago. They hunted warty pigs (like those depicted in an early cave painting from Sulawesi that hit the headlines earlier this year) and also relied heavily on shellfish collected from creeks and estuaries. Their bows and arrows were tipped with small, beautifully made stone arrowheads.

We’ve known about the Taoleans since cave excavations on Sulawesi in 1902, but they remain enigmatic, having vanished by the fifth century AD. They may well have been among the earliest inhabitants of island Southeast Asia. Only much larger scale excavations will place them properly on the historical stage.

Research published in Nature. Photo of the jaw and teeth of Bessé (Universitas Hasanuddin).

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