Discovered Tools Belonging to Ancient Humans in Indonesia Raise Questions For Scientists

A collection of stone tools were found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi that predate the arrival of modern humans to that area by 60,000 years. National Geographic reports that researchers have no idea who made them.

The tools are estimated to be anywhere from 114,000 to 194,000 years old, and were excavated from an old river floodplain in southwest Sulawesi. A few of the tools look hammered into shape.

Scientists recently found the neighboring island of Flores was home to a kind of Hobbit people, termed Homo floresiensis, who arrived nearly 1 million years ago. Some scientists believe that the ancient tools may have belonged to a relative of these hobbit-like people.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if H. floresiensis or a closely related lineage was responsible for the Sulawesi artifacts,” says Christian Tryon.

The researchers themselves wrote, “The identity of these early inhabitants is of considerable interest given previous assumptions that Sulawesi was only ever colonised by Homo sapiens, and currently thought to have arrived in the region by around 50,000 years ago.”

The idea that Homo sapiens made these tools are kind of out of the question to many scientists, but the researchers didn’t leave that out of the discussion. “Although controversial, it is conceivable that Homo sapiens dispersed soon after their emergence in Africa, spread to the easternmost tip of continental Asia and crossed to Wallacea by around 120,000 years ago,” they wrote.

Furthermore, Ars Technica reports that many researchers think the stone tools were made by banging one rock against another to produce sharp-edged pieces.

“There is patterning in the flaking techniques,” the researchers stated. But, “there is little evidence that the stoneworkers were creating tools of specific form.”

“It’s an excellent paper,” says paleoanthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa. “It establishes for certain that an archaic human was living in Sulawesi… And that’s an exciting finding.”

Michael Greshko of National Geographic wrote, “The team can’t say for sure which ancient human made the tools. The flakes—crafted from broken riverbed cobbles—aren’t distinctive enough to point to any particular toolmaker: For more than three million years, numerous species of ancient humans made tools using similarly simple methods.”

In the end, it’s hard to know who made the tools. Scientists did, however, find other artifacts along with these tools, such as tooth fossils from miniature water buffalo, an alligator, and a Pleistocene-era boar to name a few. The teeth hint that these animals might have lived nearby thousands of years ago.

Although the scientists found animal remains, they weren’t able to find any human bones or teeth, which lead to speculation among the group as to who exactly made the tools.

The researchers wrote, “Considering the predominantly southerly flowing currents of the Indonesian through-flow, we speculate that the most likely points of origin for the Sulawesi colonizers are Borneo to the west (part of mainland Asia during periods of low sea level) and the Philippines to the north (the northern extremity of Wallacea).”

While theories abound about who made these tools, scientists from around the world can speculate and enjoy the exciting new findings that further progress our own understanding of the ancient world.

[Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images]