12,000-year-old sequins hint at a shared culture in Indonesian islands

Inhabitants of three different Indonesian islands, 12,000 years ago, had a similar taste for sequins.

A team of Australian and Indonesian researchers have found that reflective shell beads, sewn onto clothing and other items, was a common trend across the islands of Alor, Timor, and Kisar.

This means there were shared ornament traditions across the region, 12,000 years ago.

The researchers examined beads that had been excavated from Makpan Cave, on the island of Alor, by archaeologists from the Australian National University and the Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia.

Makpan Cave.

Alor is roughly 100 km north of Timor, while neighbouring Kisar is roughly 50 km north.

“The time and skill required to create the tiny shiny beads in the numbers found archaeologically must have been extensive, suggesting that the beads were an important part of the Makpan community’s repertoire of adornment,” says Associate Professor Michelle Langley, a researcher at Grifith University and lead author on a paper about the research, published in Antiquity.

Langley and colleagues used microscopy to compare the beads, which came from Nautilus shells, to bead previously found on Timor and Kisar.

“When you put artefacts under a microscope, a multitude of tiny marks become visible that you can’t see with the naked eye,” says Langley.

“All these tiny marks allow you to work out how the artefact was made, how it was used […] and what happened to it after it was lost or discarded.”

“What is interesting,” says co-author Dr Shimona Kealy, a researcher at the Australian National University, “is that Nautilus shells, which were used to make the beads, are almost entirely absent from this discard pile of ancient shellfish feasts, indicating that Nautilus was not collected for food but specifically for crafting.”

People in archaeological pit
The dig in Makpan.

As well as being genetically related, Langley says it’s likely that the people who inhabited these islands in the Pleistocene era, 12,000 years ago, had “an image of an inter-island ‘community of practice’ with shared values and worldviews”.

“The archaeological evidence is indicating that there was a lot of interaction between the peoples of these islands — not only seen in the shell bead ornamentation, but they are also all using obsidian (volcanic glass) from the same source (though we have not yet found the source),” she says.

Senior author Professor Susan O’Connor, from the Australian National University, is heading off to look for the source of this obsidian.

“There is no doubt that the peoples of these islands were actively moving between the islands — using boats — to interact with each other over thousands of years,” says Langley.

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