Ngalau Sampit cave site, Sumatra: in the footsteps of Dutch Palaeoanthropologist Eugène Dubois

Lay summary authored by Mathieu Duval and Julien Louys. Read the full paper here: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.96

Our work results from a long-standing investigation initiated at the end of the XIX century by the Dutch Palaeoanthropologist M. Eugène F.T. Dubois. Before finding the famous fossil remains of Pithecanthropus (now Homo) erectus in Java, Dubois spent time on another Indonesian island, Sumatra, in the search of the missing link between apes and humans. His work led to the identification and excavation of several caves in the Padang Highlands.

More than 120 years later, the palaeontologist Julien Louys, working closely with Indonesian collaborators from the Institute of Technology in Bandung, and their team (co-authors of the present work) explored the highlands again, looking for the sites mentioned by Dubois in his field notes. This work, funded by the Australian Research Council, led to the (re-)discovery of the fossil deposits in Ngalau Sampit (“scary cave”), which was originally visited by Dubois in June 1888, and excavated about a year later.

(A) Northern cave entrance today (indicated by white arrow, picture credit: Gerrell Drawhorn); (B) Dubois’s notes: original sketch of Ngalau Sampit entrance likely made by Franke, one of Dubois’s engineer workmen (handwriting is Dubois’).

In the present work, we provide the results of a multidisciplinary investigation of the fossil deposits undertaken over the last few years. They include a general mapping of the cave and the fossil-bearing chambers and passages, the identification of the fossils exposed at the surface of the breccia deposits, and some numerical dating results. To place our finds in historical context, and likely of interest to those examining human evolution from an historical point of view, we also provide a copy and detailed English translation of Dubois’s original notes on Ngalau Sampit, written at the end of the XIX century. In our study, we applied different dating methods (namely U-series, Electron Spin Resonance and Luminescence) in order to determine the age of the sediment and associated fossils found in the cave.

Our results yield an age of about 100,000 years for Ngalau Sampit, which makes the site of great significance for two main reasons: (i) there is currently no other fossil site in Sumatra with this age, but it is coeval with the oldest rainforest site in Java (Punung); (ii) the site is older than Lida Ajer Cave, another Sumatran site excavated by Dubois that has provided the earliest evidence of modern human in south-east Asia.

Full paper: Duval, M., Westaway, K., Zaim, J., Rizal, Y., Aswan, Puspaningrum, M.R., Trihascaryo, A., Albers, P.C.H., Smith, H.E., Drawhorn, G.M., Price, G.J. and Louys, J., 2021. New Chronological Constraints for the Late Pleistocene Fossil Assemblage and Associated Breccia from Ngalau Sampit, Sumatra. Open Quaternary, 7(1), p.9. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/oq.96

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