Laili (cave)

Laili is a limestone cave located near the town of Laleia, Manatuto District, East Timor. Archeological findings in Laili provide evidence that the cave was occupied by modern humans 44,600 years ago, making it the oldest known such habitation in Wallacea.[1]:58[2][3]

Laili cave
Location in East Timor
Locationnear Laleia, Manatuto District
RegionEast Timor
Coordinates8.5409°S 126.1632°E / -8.5409; 126.1632
Altitude86 m (282 ft)
TypeLimestone cave

The age of findings made in Laili corroborates the theory that humans spread from Asia to Australia through the Southern route, via Java and the Lesser Sunda Islands.[1][4]


Today, the cave lies at an altitude of 86 metres (282 ft).[1] 44,600 years ago, during initial settlement, the sea level was 63 metres (207 ft) lower than today. During the Last Glacial Maximum, about 20,000 years ago, the sea level was 130 metres (430 ft) lower than today. The steepness of the shore near Laili means that the distance from the cave to the shore has stayed relatively unchanged over time, from 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) during the peak of the glacial era to 4.3 kilometres (2.7 mi) today.[1]


Findings from the cave provide evidence for occupation spanning 44,600 to 11,200 years before present. Usage of the cave increased towards the end of the Last Glacial Maximum 15,000 years ago, suggesting a dramatic increase of the population as sea levels rose.[1]


Animal remains

The remains of fruit bats, rodents, birds, fishes and turtles were found in Laili. Not all can be attributed to human hunting. For example, presence of murids (small rodents) was relatively constant during the occupation of the cave, suggesting that humans had little impact on murids.[1]

As there is no evidence of fishing by owls present in Timor at the time, fish remains (parrotfish and freshwater eel) can be attributed to human consumption. However, unlike in Jerimalai, it is thought that these fishes were caught using traps or spears, and not with fishing hooks.[1]

While abundant bird remains were found in Laili, it is thought that most were deposited by avian predators. However, larger birds like ducks and imperial pigeons were probably hunted by humans.[5]

Despite being close to the sea, few faunal remains found in Laili come from the sea. In that regard, Laili is similar to inland caves like Uai Bobo and Matja Kuru.[1][6]

Birds and fruit bats suggest that the local environment was covered by forests during the Ice Age.[1]


A high number of stone artefacts were excavated at Laili, suggesting that tools used by occupants of the cave were primarily made from the reduction of stones. This contrasts with the Jerimalai cave, where tools and jewelry made from seashells were found.[2]

Migration to the Australian continent

The Laili cave findings show that Timor was colonised at least 44,600 years ago. However, the oldest findings in Northern Australia date back more than 50,000 years.[7] It is possible that some findings in Laili are older, but their age could not be determined using radiocarbon dating. Luminescence dating, which was used to date the earliest sites in Northern Australia, could produce earlier results.[1]


  1. Hawkins, Stuart; O'Connor, Sue; Maloney, Tim Ryan; Litster, Mirani; Kealy, Shimona; Fenner, Jack N.; Aplin, Ken; Boulanger, Clara; Brockwell, Sally; Willan, Richard; Piotto, Elena; Louys, Julien (September 2017). "Oldest human occupation of Wallacea at Laili Cave, Timor-Leste, shows broad-spectrum foraging responses to late Pleistocene environments". Quaternary Science Reviews. 171: 58–72. Bibcode:2017QSRv..171...58H. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2017.07.008.
  2. Langley, Michelle C.; O'Connor, Sue; Piotto, Elena (August 2016). "42,000-year-old worked and pigment-stained Nautilus shell from Jerimalai (Timor-Leste): Evidence for an early coastal adaptation in ISEA". Journal of Human Evolution. 97: 1–16. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2016.04.005. PMID 27457541.
  3. O’Connor, Sue; Barham, Anthony; Spriggs, Matthew; Veth, Peter; Aplin, Ken; St Pierre, Emma (17 March 2016). "Cave Archaeology and Sampling Issues in the Tropics: A Case Study from Lene Hara Cave, a 42,000 Year Old Occupation Site in East Timor, Island Southeast Asia". Australian Archaeology. 71 (1): 29–40. doi:10.1080/03122417.2010.11689382.
  4. O'Connor, Sue (2 January 2015). "New evidence from East Timor contributes to our understanding of earliest modern human colonisation east of the Sunda Shelf". Antiquity. 81 (313): 523–535. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00095569.
  5. Hawkins, Stuart; O’Connor, Sue; Louys, Julien (8 December 2017). "Taphonomy of bird (Aves) remains at Laili Cave, Timor-Leste, and implications for human-bird interactions during the Pleistocene". Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. 11 (12): 6325–6337. doi:10.1007/s12520-017-0568-4.
  6. O'Connor, S.; Robertson, G.; Aplin, K.P. (February 2014). "Are osseous artefacts a window to perishable material culture? Implications of an unusually complex bone tool from the Late Pleistocene of East Timor" (PDF). Journal of Human Evolution. 67: 108–119. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.12.002.
  7. Clarkson, Chris; Smith, Mike; Marwick, Ben; Fullagar, Richard; Wallis, Lynley A.; Faulkner, Patrick; Manne, Tiina; Hayes, Elspeth; Roberts, Richard G.; Jacobs, Zenobia; Carah, Xavier; Lowe, Kelsey M.; Matthews, Jacqueline; Florin, S. Anna (June 2015). "The archaeology, chronology and stratigraphy of Madjedbebe (Malakunanja II): A site in northern Australia with early occupation". Journal of Human Evolution. 83: 46–64. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.03.014. hdl:1773/33254. PMID 25957653.
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