Early people were rapidly adapting to climate change as they made their waytowards Australia tens of thousands of years ago, new research shows.

Shells, fish bones and fishhooks found on the Indonesian island of Alor showhow people lived and adapted to the environment more than 40,000 years ago.

Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) led the team whichexcavated a cave – called Makpan – on Alor’s southwest coast.

Their findings also confirm Alor’s position as a ‘stepping stone’ between thelarger islands of Flores and Timor.

According to Dr Shimona Kealy from ANU, analysis of artefacts found at Makpanshow how inventive and adaptive its early residents were.

“This provides further insights into early modern human movements between theislands and shows how responsive people were to challenges such as climatechange,” Dr Kealy said.

“Once people began to move into the islands they did so very quickly, andrapidly adjusted to their new island homes.”

Makpan witnessed a series of massive sea level highs and lows during its43,000 years of human occupation, largely due to the climactic extremes of thelast Ice Age.

“When people first arrived at Makpan, they came in low numbers,” Dr Kealysaid.

“At this time the cave was close to the coast – as it is today – and thisearly community lived on a diet of shellfish, barnacles and sea urchin, withsea urchins in particular eaten in large numbers.”

Shortly after their initial arrival, sea levels began to fall. This increasedthe distance from the site of Makpan to the coast, and likely encouragedpeople to broaden their diet to include a variety of land-based fruits andvegetables.

As the last Ice Age began to wane about 14,000 years ago, Makpan was onceagain within 1km of the coast.

Professor Sue O’Connor says around 12,000 years ago people were enjoying a“smorgasbord of seafood”.

“It is no surprise the site sees significant evidence for fishing at thistime, not just the bones of a wide variety of fish and shark species, but alsoin the form of shell fishhooks in different shapes and sizes,” ProfessorO’Connor said.

Makpan was abandoned around 7,000 years ago, before a final occupation phasearound 3,500 years ago.

“We don’t know why Makpan was abandoned at this time,” Dr Kealy said.

“Perhaps final sea level increases made other areas around Alor island moreattractive settlement locations.”

The study has been published in Quaternary Science Reviews

It was supported by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence forAustralian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH).

Image: Alor Island. Photo: Shimona Kealy

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