The genome of a woman who died more than seven thousand years ago became the first confirmation of the existence of a mysterious Toalean culture

The genome of a woman who died more than seven thousand years ago became the first confirmation of the existence of a mysterious Toalean culture
The genome of a woman who died more than seven thousand years ago became the first confirmation of the existence of a mysterious Toalean culture

Sequencing of DNA extracted from remains about 7,200 years old confirmed that a completely extinct hunter-gatherer culture lived in the territory of modern Indonesia. She represented a unique mixture of the gene pool of the Denisovites and modern people.

Modern Austronesian peoples settled the islands of Southeast Asia about three and a half thousand years ago. However, people lived there even before that: for example, representatives of the Toalean culture, traces of which are very few. In fact, the very existence of the Toaleans as a separate human population was in question. On the territory of the island of Sulawesi, or rather in its southern part, tools of labor made of stones and bones have been found for more than a century. But archaeologists have not come across well-preserved and reliably dated human remains until recently.

That all changed in 2015, when a burial more than seven thousand years old was discovered in the Bat Cave (Leang Panninge). His excavations were crowned with unprecedented success: experts from Hasanuddin University in Makassar found a grave with the remains of a woman. She was buried under stones in an embryonic position (typical for prehistoric and Neolithic tribes), the age of the deceased was estimated at 17-18 years.

Among the fragments of the skull, bones of the inner ear were found with well-preserved DNA in them. The genetic material was sequenced and analyzed in detail. The results of this work were published by an international team of scientists in the journal Nature (the text is in the public domain). The list of authors includes employees of the Max Planck Institutes of Human History and Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany), the aforementioned Hasanuddin University (Indonesia), as well as Griffith, Australian National (Australia), Malaysian Science (Malaysia) and Seoul National (South Korea) universities. In addition, experts from the Indonesian National Research Center for Archeology (ARKENAS) and independent researchers took part in the scientific work.

Among other things, this is the first find of preserved ancient human DNA in Wallaceia, a biogeographic region in Southeast Asia, between Sundaland and the region that was previously the Sahul continent. This prehistoric continent until the end of the last glacial maximum (18 thousand years ago) included modern Australia, as well as New Guinea and Tasmania (even earlier - and Antarctica). And Sundaland is the Asian continental shelf, on which the Malacca Peninsula, the islands of Kalimantan, Java and Sumatra are located. Wallessia has a clear boundary between the Asian and Australian faunas.

The found woman was dubbed Bursek (Bessé ', in the language of the local people Bugis - "newborn princess") because of her incredible historical significance. Unique proportions of the main hereditary markers were found in the genome. The girl inherited almost half of the DNA from the same ancestors as the modern aborigines of Australia, New Guinea and the islands of the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean. This share also includes the genes of the Denisovans - a modern human species to the Neanderthals.


The Toalean culture stands out for its characteristic stone arrowheads, which often have the characteristic notches made on purpose. A similar technique is observed in some tribes of Australia and New Guinea, but there are significant differences / © Shahna Britton, Andrew Thomson

A number of features in the proportions between different parts of Bursek's genome point to several interesting facts. First, the young woman obviously belonged to a unique population of people. Based on the location of the find, she can almost certainly be called a representative of the Toalean culture. Secondly, the direct ancestors of the Toalean woman who died 7200 years ago is the result of the crossing of modern humans and Denisovans several millennia earlier. This most likely means that the two subspecies of the species Homo met on the Wallacea Islands in the Late Paleolithic.

The history of the dispersal of modern man as a species across the globe will be covered with white spots for a long time. But the recent discovery of Bursek sheds light on at least one of the periods of ancient history. The Toaleans lived for a relatively long period, between eight and one and a half thousand years ago. They were a hunter-gatherer people with a fairly developed culture and able to swim in the sea. Presumably, the Toalean culture was familiar with agriculture and the domestication of wild animals (in particular, the Visayan warty pig).

According to some versions, it was the Toaleans who brought domesticated dogs to Australia, which became the ancestors of the dingo. But much of the information about this culture remains fragmented and incomplete. The discovery of the first Toalean remains prompted the Scientific Council of Australia to initiate an expanded research program on the topic. Perhaps in the near future, scientists will be able to establish how the mysterious culture appeared and disappeared, as well as in what way and when it separated from the modern people who settled Wallaceia about 65 thousand years ago.

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