Friday, November 13, 2015

A Race to Save Ancient Human Secrets in Borneo

Archaeologists enlist UNESCO's help to protect prehistoric sites threatened by limestone quarrying.

If you wanted to create a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, you might well look to the limestone landscape, or karst, on the Sangkulirang Peninsula in eastern Borneo. There, in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, you could cite the abundance of human and natural riches to justify your proposal.

For seven years, archaeologist Francois-Xavier Ricaut, from the University of Toulouse, and his French-Indonesian team, MAFBO (Mission Archéologique Franco-Indonésienne à Bornéo), have been excavating three sites in the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst, which spans 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares).

In the karst, thick tropical forest shrouds weathered limestone spires, making it hard to get around, let alone do science. As a result, Ricaut says, “hardly any archaeological work has been done in this karst—we’re just beginning.”

After dogged sleuthing, Ricaut and his colleagues have found bones and charcoal that date back 35,000 years, the earliest such evidence of human occupation yet found in Kalimantan.

“These early remains are exciting,” he says, “because Kalimantan has for a long time been excluded from the human evolution and dispersal story.”

UNESCO seems to recognize the natural and cultural values of this landscape. The organization has placed the karst on its tentative list of sites to protect and has shown interest in sending a team out to see the region.

But Ricaut worries that recent scientific finds, and UNESCO interest, may be coming too late. Rapid expansion of plantations of oil palm, and illegal logging, have put pressure on the area, and now industrial companies are poised to mine the region’s limestone, the main raw material for making cement. Forest fires—ones now raging in Kalimantan were likely intentionally lit to clear land—compound losses of wildlife and habitat.

It’s anyone’s guess what might disappear. The “hobbit,” Homo floresiensis, discovered a decade ago in a karst cave on Flores, Indonesia, continues to rouse scientific curiosity and debate. It is thought that this miniature hominin lived as recently as 12,000 years ago alongside modern humans.

The French-Indonesian MAFBO team is working in the same area where ancient people made impressions of their own hands in cliffside caves 10,000 or more years ago. Along with the old bones they’ve unearthed, Ricaut says they’ve found hundreds of prehistoric rock paintings that show, in orange to brown hematite pigments, the figures of animals such as tapirs (now extinct on Borneo), banteng (wild cattle), and some creatures unknown to us today.

Blind Fish, Orangutans—And Indigenous People

The wonders of the Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat karst are not limited to the human imprint: Southeast Asia’s limestone hills and valleys have been dubbed “imperiled arks of biodiversity.” 

“I was speechless when exploring this karst,” says Rondang Siregar, an Indonesian biologist from the University of Indonesia, in Jakarta. The region is brimming with rare limestone-restricted species.

“I saw blind freshwater fish, rare bats, black- and white-nest swiftlets, and countless other animals," she says. "The karst forest is also a refuge for orangutans fleeing forest fires during El Niño years.”

Matthew Struebig, a tropical ecologist at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, says the diversity of bat species is greater here than most anywhere else in Southeast Asia. And the sheer number of bats is impressive. “Some Sangkulirang caves support populations of several hundred, if not millions, of individuals.”

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: A Race to Save Ancient Human Secrets in Borneo