Burials of three ancient bodies shed light on human migration

Scientists have discovered three bodies on an Indonesian island that provide insight into the movements of early humans thousands of years ago.

The bodies, found at three burial sites, are part of an excavation and analysis of 50,000 bones discovered along the southern coast of the Indonesian island of Alor, north of Timor Leste.

The various remains found under rock shelters in an area named Tron Bon Lei near Lerabain are between 7,500 and 13,000 years old.

But it’s how they were buried that provides unique insight into how early humans moved through Southeast Asia during the Pleistocene and Holocene periods.

Studies are beginning to understand the genetic diversity of peoples in the region, which lead researcher Dr. Samper Carro says can be further informed by the discovery of these bodies.

Read more: How did the first humans migrate to Australia?

“The three rather unusual and interesting burials show different mortuary practices,” says Carro.

“They could be linked to recent discoveries of multiple migratory routes through the Wallacea Islands thousands of years ago.

“This shows how burial practices can complement genetic diversity data from one of the current research hotspots in Southeast Asia.”

Funeral practices and the speaking dead

The discovery of human remains in the area began in 2014, when teams from ANU and Indonesia’s Gadjah Mada University discovered a 12,000-year-old human skull buried with several fish hooks.

More bodies were found when the team returned to the site four years later. Carro then spent several years interrupted by COVID studying the remains, with the results now published in PLOS One.

It is the positioning of the bodies below the surface that provides archaeologists with insight into the different cultures that migrate through the region.

One of the bodies had its extremities intentionally ripped off before being buried.

Another was placed in a “sitting” position, while the third was lying on his side.

“Burials are a unique cultural manifestation to investigate waves of migration,” says Carro.

Burial practices can provide scientists with insight into the migration patterns made by ancient cultures.

Likewise, these practices may have developed locally, so Carro says further research to characterize mortuary practices in the region will help provide greater accuracy to his findings.

“Further research on aspects such as biomolecular anthropology, dietary practices or the types of tools used in funeral rites will allow us to collect more data,” she says.

“These future efforts will provide us with deeper insights to interpret the lifestyles of these communities.”