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Lemdubu Woman

Presumably this news item in the Sydney Morning Herald comes from a talk at the
Australian Archaeological Associaton Conference 2003
by David Bulbeck, Sue O'Connor, Matthew Spriggs, & Peter Veth - The Late Glacial Maximum, Tropical Sahulland Woman from Lemdubu Cave, Aru, Indonesia.

No shrinking violet ... the skeleton and skull of Lemdubu Woman. The stick at left is a metre long. (photo)

Our own Amazon princess

SMH December 10 2003

Back when Indonesia was part of Australia, a young woman left treasure in a cave. Deborah Smith reports.

SHE was tall and strong and in her late 20s when she died about 18,000 years ago. Her teeth were not worn down, so she had probably enjoyed a diet of wallaby and other animals rather than chewing on tough plants. And from the unusual holes in some of her bones, it is possible that cancerous growths contributed to her early demise.

Named after the limestone cave where she was found, Lemdubu Woman and her burial site provide a unique insight into life in the north of the continent during the last glacial maximum, when Australia was much colder and drier.

Her skeleton has now been studied in more detail than any other remains from this period.

Today, Lemdubu Cave sits amid the dense rainforest of the Aru islands in Indonesia. But at the time the young woman died, sea levels were at their lowest because the ice sheets were at their greatest extent, and the Aru islands were part of a bigger Australian land mass, called Sahulland, that included New Guinea and Tasmania.

A Canberra archaeologist, Dr Susan O'Connor, says Lemdubu Cave is the most remote location in which she has undertaken excavations. A long canoe trip inland followed by three hours of trekking through thick vegetation was required to reach the site where she discovered the skeleton several years ago with colleagues Professor Matthew Spriggs, also of the Australian National University, and Associate Professor Peter Veth, of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

"In such a remote location, when you're excavating you have no idea how old the material is," O'Connor says. But the archaeologists were confident they had made a significant find when they also uncovered bones from agile wallabies and pollens from grasses which indicated that the climate, landscape and fauna had been very different when Lemdubu woman was alive.

Back in Australia the 394 fragments of skeleton were painstakingly pieced together by an ANU researcher, Dr David Bulbeck, who described his findings last week at the Australian Archaeological Association conference in Jindabyne.

The use of the cave site has been dated as stretching from about 27,000 to 12,000 years ago, with the burial site dated at 18,000 to 16,000 years ago.

If her skull alone had been found, Lemdubu Woman would probably have been mistaken for a man, says Bulbeck. "The cranium is robust and of masculine appearance, with a large upper jaw containing large teeth."

She had long limbs and probably stood about 166 centimetres tall. But her limb bones were also thick. "She would seem to have been a very strong woman, notwithstanding her athletic linear build," he says.

The last ice age began about 120,000 years ago with cycles of warming and cooling until the last glacial maximum was reached, which stretched from about 28,000 to 19,000 years ago. The ice sheets then retreated until the climate became stable about 10,000 years ago. Sea levels reached their present height about 6000 years ago.

An ANU earth scientist, Professor John Chappell, says studies of ice cores from the northern hemisphere have revealed that fluctuations during the ice age, occurring every 6000 years or so, were often large and rapid. "Our understanding of this period has changed enormously in the past decade," he says.

Some warming was incredibly fast, with climbs of 5 degrees in less than a century.

The polar ice sheets would not have been able to advance and retreat as quickly, but research in New Guinea suggests the largest of the rapid warmings were associated with sea level rises of 10 to 20 metres, says Chappell.

Not enough research has been done in the southern hemisphere to know whether the pattern in Australia during the ice age was a similar one. But in the past two years new evidence from the Snowy Mountains and other areas has revealed that during the last glacial maximum it was much colder in south-eastern Australia than had been thought.

Rather than five degrees colder than now, it might have reached an extreme of 10 degrees colder, says Chappell. "It seems to me, putting the evidence together, the cold climate probably lasted for no more than a few thousand years, but it was eight or nine degrees colder than present."

As well, it became drier as the last glacial maximum progressed, with a peak period of aridity apparently lasting until 12,000 years ago, he says.

While this would have meant more extensive arid regions, Australia was also a land of even greater contrasts during the last glacial maximum than now with, for example, wetlands in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia close to the expansive sand dunes. It wasn't cold and dry everywhere at once, says Chappell.

The harshest environment would have been chilly south-western Tasmania. "Yet we know it was occupied right through the last glacial maximum," says Chappell.

In the Willandra region of NSW, before the big cold hit, people flocked to the fish-filled, snow-fed lakes. This is where Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, Australia's oldest-known human remains, were ceremonially buried 40,000 years ago. But by 18,000 years ago Lake Mungo had become the dry dusty hole we know today.

In the northern part of Sahulland, however, Lemdubu Woman was feasting on wallaby.

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