PARIS • Scientists have discovered Stone Age tools at least 118,000 years old on an Indonesian island but no trace of the early humans who made them, according to a new study.
The research, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, also points to a possible link with the first peoples to arrive in Australia.
Unearthed at four separate sites on Sulawesi, the trove of several hundred implements is likely to fuel debate about the identity of now-extinct human species who first came to the island chain.
In 2003, fossil remains were discovered on the neighbouring island of Flores. Dubbed the "Hobbit", Homo floresiensis had arrived there at least a million years earlier, dating tests revealed.
The new find shows "that Flores was not the only island once inhabited by archaic humans before Homo sapiens (modern man) got there around 50,000 years ago", said lead author Gerrit van den Bergh, a researcher at the University of Wollongong in Australia.
The Hobbit, many scientists say, is a descendant of the extinct species Homo erectus. Whether the makers of the Sulawesi tools are also derived from Homo erectus - who lived in nearby Java at least 1.5 million years ago - is impossible to know without fossil evidence.
But the new discovery, Mr van den Bergh said, raises the possibility of a link with the earliest humans to populate what is today Australia.
"We know from genetic evidence that the first people coming to Australia, and their descendants, have a tiny proportion of their DNA inherited from an enigmatic group of humans called the Denisovans," he said. "It could well be that the makers of the recently dated stone tools from Sulawesi could have been these Denisovans."
One thing is certain, the study said. The tools are too old to have been made by Homo sapiens.