The more we learn about ancient humans, the less we seem to know. Recent archaeological discoveries of ancient civilizations have upended our theoretical timelines of human evolution, and we've found the other known species of humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans, had a much larger role in our genetic story than previously thought. According to a paper published in PLOS ONE by a team of Australian archaeologists, now another mysterious culture has been discovered. The archaeologists say that tools and animal hides discovered in a cave in Indonesia belonged to a primitive, ancient culture, and might be evidence of a "distinct human species" that called the area home some 50,000 years ago.
The cave, called Leang Burung, sits on the island of Sulawesi in southern Indonesia. It was discovered and first excavated in 1975, and the artifacts found were seen as evidence modern humans' arrival to the area between 25,000 and 34,000 years ago. The new findings suggest something different. Dr. Adam Brumm of Griffith University's Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution specifies:
We have uncovered archaeological evidence for an ancient population of "Ice Age" hunter-gatherers that inhabited Leang Burung 2 rock-shelter around 50,000 years ago.
Dr. Brumm says that early modern humans were creating cave art in nearby sites by 40,000 years ago, which suggests that the newly discovered ancient culture arrived on Sulawesi before the Ice-Age cave painting culture did. The inhabitants of Leang Burung were much more primitive than the known early humans of the time. Based on this, Brumm says, "the first inhabitants of this site may not only have been members of a different culture but also a distinct human species."
What that species may be is unclear. Sulawesi was one of the last stops before Australia on the road of human migration, and there were many different species and subspecies of hominins that journeyed across the chain of islands over the course of millennia. The island sits to the north of Flores, where the ancient race of "hobbits" were discovered, and recent research suggests that the mysterious Denisovan hominins made their way to Australia, where they bred with early humans, via the same route.
The archaeologists have not yet reached the bottom layers of sediment and they say that with further excavation they may find evidence of even older civilizations.
The researchers are quick to say that, while they believe that this is evidence of a separate human species, it may be that these artifacts belonged to the same Ice-Age cave artists that were previously discovered in the area, or it could be another group of early humans. Adam Brumm says:
It is now known that Homo Sapiens evolved in Africa at least 300,000 years ago and that an early population of our species had spread out of Africa (into Israel) by 200,000 years ago, and possibly even made it much further east.
Whatever culture it was, it's another look into the fascinating and mysterious path our ancestors and ancient relatives took, and yet another example of how limited our knowledge of the past really is.