In 2015 Indonesian archaeologists unearthed a 7,300-year-old skeleton from Leang Pannigne or ‘Bat Cave’ on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Estimating her to be around 17 or 18 at her time of death, she was found in an oval pit surrounded by rocks in the depths of the limestone.
Calling her Bessé, in homage to the traditional royal nicknaming tradition of the island, her discovery marked the first time a relatively complete skeleton with preserved DNA has been found in the area where the Toalean early humans resided. Her discovery is integral to learning more about this group of people and the populations they would have interacted with, which helps us greatly with uncovering the famously murky story of migration into Oceania.
Thus, after six years of examining the data from Bessé, the study released in Nature unveiled that they managed to extract around 2% of DNA from her skull, unlocking a mysterious element of her ancestry. They found that she did not share any ancestry with the modern-day Sulawesi population but rather shared DNA with present-day Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians and an archaic human species known as the Denisovans. What we do know about this now-extinct hominin is limited to DNA findings from across the globe, with the first insight into the group only being uncovered a decade ago. This makes Bessé’s discovery exciting as other archaeological finds in South East Asia, such as the 8,000-year-old skeleton discovered in Laos and the 4,400-year-old skeleton found in Malaysia, indicate no traces of Denisovan ancestry at all. Therefore, Bessé’s discovery is essential in revealing how Indonesia, or more specifically the area of Wallacea (the group of islands between Java and Papua), is, in the words of study researcher Cosimo Posth, “the meeting point for the major admixture [mating] event between Denisovans and modern humans”.
What does this mean?
In simple terms, the discovery of Bessé means a re-evaluation of what was originally theorised by early human migration patterns into Oceania. New DNA traces of an unknown Asian population in her DNA suggests that there was a previous wave of early human migration through Wallacea that interacted with the Toalean group. It helps unravel a story about a people we had minimal previous research into and changes what we once understood about migration into the landmass of Sahul – present-day Australia and Papua.
Why is this important?
If you are naturally drawn to archaeology, this discovery is fascinating regardless of its importance. However, it gives valuable information into how our old societies and groups of early humans would have developed and functioned for many of us. Who they would have interacted with and why they might have chosen to do this. The previous discoveries around the Toalean culture in south Sulawesi do not offer much insight into the reclusive group. Bessé’s discovery provides her genetic material and valuable information such as how she was buried and what was buried with her. The life she could have led is now available to be theorised. If future methods of genetic extraction are developed, future scientists may be able to expand the picture of Toalean culture even further.
However, the greater importance lies in how Bessé showcases the natural, historical value of caves and high points all around the South East Asian region. An aspect of this discovery that I have not disclosed yet is the fact that Leang Panninge was earmarked to be turned into a waterpark at the time of Bessé’s discovery. Notoriously, ancient DNA is extremely hard to find across South East Asia due to the tropical conditions that contain bacteria that eats away at DNA over the years. Therefore caves such as Leang Panninge are essential in retaining the history of early humans and uncovering the way of life they once led.
The importance of discovering a skeleton in a cave from an old extinct community is understandably not everyone’s idea of a revelation. However, as discussed, it offers invaluable information into how modern human populations developed. It also serves as an example of the knowledge humanity could have lost if the waterpark had been constructed and what could have already been lost in the course of modern production across Wallacea and beyond.
Unfortunately, when it comes to preserving biodiversity in Indonesia, governing bodies have tended to favour companies aiming to profit from the destruction of natural resources over those seeking to preserve valuable archaeological, historical, and environmental sites. Hopefully, the discovery of Bessé highlights the natural richness and rareness of Indonesia’s highlands and helps shift attitudes towards the importance of preservation.