Ilin Island Salamagi rockshelter trench 1 from north (Photograph by Martin Porr). The test excavations involved both students from the University of the Philippines (Archaeological Studies Program) as well as students from the University of Western Australia.

This is the first in a series of posts that have been prepared by commissioned bloggers working with authors of recently published papers in our journal, Australian Archaeology. This post has been prepared by Michelle Langley.

Who, when, where and how the first modern human groups left Africa and colonised the rest of the globe is a central issue in prehistoric archaeology. For Australian archaeologists, how these early explorers got from the home of all human ancestors–Africa–to Australia by around 50,000 years BP is especially interesting.

Silum Beach, Ambulong Island (Photograph by Alfred Pawlik). The survey work that was conducted in the Philippines involved often island-hopping with local boats and crews, who directed the team to possible archaeological sites and sometimes beautiful beaches.

Silum Beach, Ambulong Island (Photograph by Alfred Pawlik). The survey work that was conducted in the Philippines involved often island-hopping with local boats and crews, who directed the team to possible archaeological sites and sometimes beautiful beaches.

A currently popular and well supported hypothesis for how the first Australians reached our great southern continent is known as the ‘southern arc route’. This hypothesis suggests that after leaving Africa, early groups of people more or less followed the coastline of what is now the Indian Ocean. As part of this movement of people, groups may have settled in a new area, and as the population grew, the community expanded, inching further down the coastline (as well as into the interior of the continents). Especially curious individuals and/or groups may also have taken longer journeys into ‘unknown territory’ either settling in a new area away from their home community or returning home to tell of their discoveries. Eventually, people would have reached the edge of the Pleistocene landmass known as Sunda and would face the Island world beyond (SE Asia and the Indonesian Islands). Maybe it was at this stage that they started constructing seaworthy watercraft for the journey to Australia (known as the Sahul landmass) and even further into the Pacific Ocean.

Mindoro Survey (Photograph by Migs Canilao). This image shows a view from a limestone ridge in the south of Mindoro over the coastal plain. Ilin Island is visible in the background.

Mindoro Survey (Photograph by Migs Canilao). This image shows a view from a limestone ridge in the south of Mindoro over the coastal plain. Ilin Island is visible in the background.

In the past, SE Asia and Australia have played only peripheral roles into research which aims to learn about early populations of Modern Humans. In recent years, however, these regions have received growing attention by archaeologists wishing to learn about the diversity of Pleistocene (before 10,000 years ago) human technologies, subsistence and cultures. This area of research is important to investigate as it not only informs us about how past communities have dealt with changing climates and environments, but also about the very nature of what it is to be a modern human with all the intricacies of cultural diversity.

Published in the December issue of Australian Archaeology (volume 75:110–117), Martin Porr and colleagues outline new archaeological surveys and excavations in The Philippines undertaken by an international team from The University of Western Australia, The University of the Philippines, The National Museum of the Philippines, The Australian National University and Anthropology Watch Inc.

Through undertaking new archaeological surveys and excavations on the island of Mindoro, this team aims to uncover new information about when, where and by whom this area was colonised. The island of Mindoro, being north of the ‘southern arc route’ (described above) to Australia will provide information about the earliest explorers and settlers to SE Asia. Did they stick to the coastline and not enter north into Mindoro until much later? Or did people explore north of the ‘southern arc’ as they moved towards Australia? What kinds of technology were they using? What did they eat and how were they getting it? These are the kinds of questions this research aims to answer.

Ilin Island Salamagi rockshelter trench 1 from north (Photograph by Martin Porr). The test excavations involved both students from the University of the Philippines (Archaeological Studies Program) as well as students from the University of Western Australia.

Ilin Island Salamagi rockshelter trench 1 from north (Photograph by Martin Porr). The test excavations involved both students from the University of the Philippines (Archaeological Studies Program) as well as students from the University of Western Australia.

The answers to these questions will allow archaeologists to build a better understanding of how people colonised SE Asia and Australia as well as learn more about how the vast cultural diversity of the modern world developed.

For further information on the southern arc route or the colonisation and prehistory of Australia see:

Balme, J. et al. 2009 Symbolic behaviour and the peopling of the southern arc route to Australia. Quaternary International 202:59-68.

Porr, M. et al North of the Southern Arc – the Mindoro Archaeological Research Program: A summary of the 2010 and 2011 fieldwork activities. Australian Archaeology 75: 110-117

Oppenheimer, S. 2009 The great arc of dispersal of modern humans: Africa to Australia. Quaternary International 202: 2-13.

Hiscock, P. 2008 Archaeology of Ancient Australia. London: Routledge