The Japan Times
July 8, 1999

Man may have sailed 840,000 years ago: study

SYDNEY (AFP-Jiji) Humans were communicating effectively, building boats and undertaking successful sea crossings at least 800,000 years earlier than previously thought, new Australian research has found.

Conventional wisdom had held that the settlement of Aborigines in Australia 50,000 to 60,000 years ago was the first evidence of intelligent humanity using maritime technology.

But stone artifacts discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores, west of Timor, has provided evidence that boats, thought to be rafts with steering and a form of propulsion, were in use around 840,000 years ago.

"And you can't have marine technology of that sophisticated sort without effective communication," said archaeologist Mike Morwood of the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale, New South Wales. "They couldn't have been just grunting at each other."

Studies by Morwood, and fission-track dating by Paul O'Sullivan of Melbourne's La Trobe University have shown "hominids" - humans - were alive and prospering as an intelligent community on Flores after sailing there from mainland Asia hundreds of thousands of years ago.

An article on the research by a team headed by Morwood, published in the latest edition of the British archaeological journal Antiquity, has sparked a major controversy in the international community of archaeologists.

It describes excavations of fossil sites at Boa Lesa and Dozu Dhalu on Flores - to which Morwood is returning Sunday with a team of Australian, Indonesian and Dutch scientists to look at events leading to the colonization of Australia.

"Stone artifacts indicate that hominids had arrived on the island by 840,000 years ago," it said. The artifacts, used for killing animals and shaping wood, were the first stone tools used in South-East Asia.

"Since water crossings were required to reach Flores from mainland Southeast Asia, this evidence has implications for the intellectual technological and linguistic capabilities of early hominids."

The research findings indicate the intelligence and technological capability of Homo erectus, predecessor of modern humans, or Homo sapiens, may have been seriously underestimated.

"Previously the organizational and linguistic capacity required for sea voyaging was thought to be the prerogative of modern humans. It now appears some humans had this capacity 840,000 years ago."

Morwood said the water gap between Bali and Lombok on the way to Flores from Indonesia is a very dangerous water crossing of about 25 km.

"Clearly you are talking about some kind of water transport that would have required some means of propulsion and some means of steering," he said.

"You couldn't just put yourself on a platform of bamboo tied together and trust yourself to the currents because you would end up dead. You would also have to have a family size group making the crossing, so you are talking about quite a complex exercise."

Morwood said the evidence of early human occupation of Flores was beyond question, but the debate was about what it signifies.

He argues that the findings should lead to a rethink about the capabilities of early humans and the evidence suggested a highly intelligent animal.

"The evidence is straight out of artifacts and there is no dispute from anybody about the artifacts, they are sealed in by volcanic deposits."