What is it about?

As humans, our greatest evolutionary advantage has always been our ability to adapt and innovate. When people first reached the expanded coastline of Southeast Asia and faced the sea crossings necessary to continue east into the islands of the Wallacean archipelago, these abilities were put to use like never before. New evidence published in this article shows that people reached, and settled on the Indonesian island of Alor about 43 thousand years ago. Alor is a smaller island lying between the larger islands of Flores and Timor, on the southern migratory pathway between mainland Southeast Asia and Australia. Occupation of this age demonstrates that once people began to move into the islands they did so very quickly, and rapidly adjusted to their new island homes. This collaborative research project involved Australian and Indonesian archaeologists who excavated the site of Makpan cave on Alor’s south-west coast in mid-2016. The presence of human occupants in Makpan cave was identified by the recovery of various tools made from stone, shell, and coral, as well as the remains of marine shell and sea urchins for which humans are the only likely transport agents from coast to cave. The timing of human occupation at Makpan was determined through radiocarbon dating of preserved charcoal and marine shell recovered from the excavation.

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Why is it important?

The Makpan dates have pushed back the record for human occupation on Alor Island twice as far as our previous excavations on Alor, which only recovered dates back about 21,000 years. This new find shows that Alor was occupied at the same time as Flores to the west, and Timor to the east – confirming Alor’s position as a ‘stepping-stone’ between these two larger islands. Shortly after people arrived at Makpan, sea level began to fall so that Alor became joined to Pantar island to the west, creating a mega-island almost double in size. This had the result of closing the channel which today exists between Pantar and Alor (the Pantar strait) through which strong ocean currents connect the Flores and Savu seas. Instead the strait was replaced by a large sheltered bay. The Makpan archaeological assemblage documents the inventive and adaptive responses of its early inhabitants to thousands of years of global climate change.


We first located this site literally as the sun was setting on our last day of survey on the island in 2015. To-date, it is still the most amazing cave I have worked in while undertaking archaeological research in eastern Indonesia.

Dr Shimona Kealy
Australian National University

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Forty-thousand years of maritime subsistence near a changing shoreline on Alor Island (Indonesia), Quaternary Science Reviews, December 2020, Elsevier, DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2020.106599.
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