The humidity outside of the sprawling cavern is oppressive, but in the murky depths of Tam Pa Ling it is cool, almost cold. We sit in a 5 meter deep pit under flickering generator-powered lights, squeezing the clay soil through our fingers, looking for the remains of our ancestors. The precision of my traditional archaeology training is thrown out the window as the team scrabbles at the muddy soil with hands and trowels, feeling more than seeing anything contained within the clay. Tam Pa Ling, or the Cave of the Monkeys, is located in northern Laos and since its discovery in 2008 has been a site of emerging human fossils that continue to push the date of human occupation in Southeast Asia back. Since 2014, I have travelled to Laos each December with Dr. Laura Shackelford of UIUC to join our team members from France and Australia in the search for human remains in Southeast Asia. In December of 2015, we sat in plastic lawn chairs toasting to the find of the season, a bit of rib that looked human. This 3 inch bit of bone has now been dated to ~70,000 years old, breaking our own previous dating record of humans in Asia at 60,000 years ago.
Days later I traded in the gloom of Tam Pa Ling for the gloom of a storage room in the Vietnamese Institute of Archaeology, attempting to put together other pieces of information that might help me answer my own research question. Why did humans disperse through Southeast Asia and to Australia so rapidly? My interest in this question lies in challenging the notion that humans are exceptional. What if climate change and competition for resources affected humans just as much as other animals during our dispersal? These questions led me down the unlikely path of measuring carnivore teeth to learn where humans may have overlapped with other carnivores in their prey choices, and how this may have translated into competition for resources. While the project is still in its beginning stages, preliminary data from five sites in Laos and Vietnam suggest that the humans we’ve unearthed at Tam Pa Ling would have overlapped with leopards, hyenas, and tigers in potential prey choice. My future work will investigate the role of climate and environment in creating potential dispersal corridors and how both climate and competition could have influenced human dispersal routes 70,000 years ago. In any case, December of 2016 will find me back in Tam Pa Ling up to my elbows in clay, attempting to piece together questions of human ancestry one piece of bone at a time.
This research was funded by the Explorer’s Club Exploration Fund, the Beckman Institute of Technology’s CS/AI Award, and the Department of Anthropology Summer Research Fund.
- Alexandra J. Zachwieja, PhD student in Anthropology
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