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Past environments of equatorial SE Asia must have played a critical role in determining the timing and trajectory of early human dispersal into and through the region. However, very few reliable terrestrial records are available with which to contextualize human dispersal events. This circumstance, coupled with a sparse archaeological record and the likelihood that much of the archaeological record is now submerged, means we have an incomplete understanding of the role that geography, climate and environment played in shaping human pre-history in this region. From a review of the literature, we conclude that there must have been a substantial environmental barrier resulting in a genetic separation between east and west Sundaland that persisted even though a terrestrial connection was present for most of the Pleistocene. This barrier is likely to be a north–south corridor of open non-forest vegetation, and its existence may have encouraged the rapid dispersal of early humans through the interior of Sundaland and on to Sahul. We conclude that more reliable terrestrial palaeoenvironmental records are required to better understand the links between past environments and dispersal events. We highlight avenues of particular research value, such as focusing on eastern Sumatra, western/southern Borneo and the islands in the Java Sea, where the purported savanna corridor most probably existed, and including edaphic factors in palaeovegetation modelling.

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