Indonesia's 'perfect' conditions for fossil discoveries

The country has become a renowned destination for the paleoanthropological community.

23 December 2016

Dyna Rochmyaningsih

Reynold Sumayku/ Alamy Stock Photo

Local students examine hominid skulls at the Geology Museum in Bandung, Indonesia. 

The discovery of a species of ancient human in Indonesia this year reaffirmed the archipelago as one of the world’s prime destinations for significant fossil discoveries. Scientists say there is limitless potential for further discovery in the country.

In June, an international team of researchers announced they had discovered, on the island of Flores, a hominin fossil thought to be an ancestor of the famous tiny human, Homo floresiensis, found on the island in 2003.

Iwan Kurniawan, a paleontologist from Indonesia’s Geological Museum, an official research agency under the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, says further excavations at the Mata Menge site, where the new species was found, may yield the next big discovery.

Paleontologists are trying to work out the species of the Mata Menge individual. While it’s of a similar size to the diminutive H. floresiensis, its teeth are more like Homo erectus. “If we find the skull, we will know which species it actually belongs to. And the answer will be spectacular,” says Kurniawan.

Kurniawan is supported by a joint funding commitment from the Indonesian and Australian governments. The project receives more than US $300,000 a year and is secured until 2020.

Joint support

In 1891, Eugene Dubois unearthed the first Homo erectus specimen on the banks of the Solo river in Java. Since then, Indonesia has become a renowned site for important fossil discoveries, and the quest for ancient remains has spread to the country’s many other islands.

Thomas Sutikna, a scientist from the National Research Centre for Archaeology in Indonesia (ARKENAS) who is studying at Australia’s University of Wollongong, says the rich vein of fossils on the Indonesian archipelago is due to its tropical climate and abundance of natural resources.

“Indonesia is located in the Indo-Pacific warm pool which is a perfect place for animals to live. The climate and the abundance of natural resources have attracted faunas (including humans) to come from other locations and stay,” he says.

Indonesia is also on the Ring of Fire, a Pacific Ocean zone subject to significant volcanic activity. Ash from eruptions can preserve remains and help fossilization. Its geology and prolific animal life increase the likelihood of significant fossil finds.

Matt Tocheri, Canada Research Chair in Human Origins at Lakehead University, Ontario, who has studied paleo-anthropology in Indonesia, says there will be many more big discoveries in the country in the coming years.

“Humans have been in this region for at least around 1.5 million years and possibly close to 2 million years. There are so many discovery possibilities that can shed important light on the timing and effects of past human dispersals to this area of the world. Indonesia will always remain an intense focus of the paleoanthropological community,” says Tocheri.

Want more? Read some of the most popular fossil discoveries in Indonesia in 2016.


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