History in the making

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2001, 12:00am

A team of scholars from the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, along with their East Timorese counterparts, have discovered, as well as created, history in the newly created state.

ANU announced this week that the first known date of settlement on the half-island has been pushed back by thousands of years in light of findings from an archaeological site excavated late last year at its eastern end.

Radiocarbon dating carried out by the team has established that humans occupied what now is called East Timor between 30,000 and 35,000 years ago, according to the two academics who led the team.

The fact that the expedition took place at all was just as significant, according to Susan O'Connor, a lecturer in ANU's anthropology department and one of the two organisers of the dig. The work was the first of its kind to have been undertaken by foreign academics since Indonesia's 24-year occupation ended in 1999. International educators had been officially discouraged from visiting the troubled area.

It was also the first project to involve scholars from abroad collaborating with the newly inaugurated University of East Timor, in the capital Dili, which opened late last year. The university expects to enrol up to 4,500 undergraduates over the next 12 months, and has appealed to international donors to help cover its start-up costs.

For now, Timorese postgraduates will complete their studies at institutions in Australia, New Zealand or Japan - the latter enjoying longstanding educational links with the former colonial occupying power, Portugal. Another 4,000 postgraduate students attend Indonesian campuses in Java.

'The Indonesians would not have allowed this kind of expedition,' said Matthew Spriggs, professor of anthropology who led the trip. 'But our experience in dealing with the East Timorese has been very positive.'

Dr O'Connor added she was excited by the research opportunities opened up by the vote for independence in East Timor, a land she described as an 'archaeological goldmine'. The point of work such as the ANU dig was also 'to create possibilities for the East Timorese people to investigate more about their own heritage,' she said.