Origin of the first Australians

Human origins and antiquity in Australia: an historical perspective

An edited and shortened version of this article was published in Brown, P. 1997. Australian Palaeoanthropology. In F. Spencer (ed.) History of Physical Anthropology: An Encyclopedia, 2 volumes. New York: Garland Publishing, pp. 138-145.

One of the earliest, and certainly most persistent, debates involving Australia concerns the origins of the country's indigenous human inhabitants. From first contact the European navigator explorers assumed that the Australian Aborigines had come to Australia from somewhere else. Initially external physical appearance suggested an African origin (Dampier, 1697), however this was quickly discounted on both cultural and physical grounds by James Cook (Wharton, 1893) and Joseph Banks (Beaglehole, 1962). Cook indicating that not only could the Aborigines of New South Wales be contrasted with the people then living in Africa, they could also be distinguished from their contemporaries in Asia and the Pacific. The problem this provided, both then and now, is where did Australia's founding human population come from. Unlike the consensus concerning the Asian origins of the native Americans (Stewart, 1974) there are no data providing unequivocal links between the Australian Aboriginals and specific human populations in the Old World. Given what is now known about relatively recent population movement in south-east Asia (Bellwood, 1985), and the date of initial occupation of Australia (Bowdler, 1992) there is little point in comparing the attributes of living populations in the Australasian region. The answer to the question of Australian Aboriginal origins must be sought in the past but in doing so there are substantial obstacles to be overcome. Principal among these are the manner in which the history of this debate in Australia has influenced interpretations of the fossil record and the controversies surrounding the Late Pleistocene archaeological, and hominid skeletal, assemblages in the area of geographic interest.

Ideally, proof of the various theories on the origin of the Australians would be provided by the Australasian hominid fossil record. However, problems of dating, interpretation and inadequate samples persist. From the initial descriptions of the Javan Pithecanthropus and Wadjak crania by Dubois (1894, 1922), and the Australian Talgai cranium by Smith (1918), there has been a gradual expansion of the hominid fossil record for this region. At the same time increasingly complex arguments for evolutionary continuity between Asia and Australia have been formulated (Klaatsch, 1908; Dubois, 1936; Weidenreich, 1943; Coon, 1962; Thorne and Wolpoff, 1981). Unfortunately these arguments have been complicated by the continuing uncertainty which surrounds the chronology (Watanabe and Kadar, 1985; Bartstra, et al., 1988; Theunissen, et al., 1990; Brown, 1992a) and taxonomy (Koenigswald, 1973; Jacob, 1976; Santa Luca, 1980; Sartono, 1982) of the Southeast Asian hominids and the significance of variation within the terminal Pleistocene Australian remains (Macintosh, 1967; Thorne, 1977; Freedman and Lofgren, 1979; Habgood, 1986; Brown, 1987). An understanding of the morphological variation within the terminal Pleistocene and more recent Australian populations is central to the debate on Australian origins. Historically explanations of this variation are represented by two conflicting types of hypothesis. Either Australia was colonised by a single group of immigrants with subsequent variation resulting from genetic and environmental factors (Turner, 1884; Howells, 1937; Macintosh, 1963; Abbie, 1968; Habgood, 1986; Brown, 1987) or there were multiple waves of temporally circumscribed, genetically distinct immigrants (Topinard, 1872; Davis, 1874; Lesson, 1880; Fenner, 1939; Birdsell, 1967; Thorne, 1977; Freedman and Lofgren, 1979).

The debate over the origin of the Australians is set within a framework established by the fifteenth-century and sixteenth-century navigator explorers. By the year 1500 Vasco de Gama had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and northward up the eastern coast of Africa and Christopher Columbus returned from the New World. Publications describing the autochthonous inhabitants of these new lands appeared by the middle of the seventeenth-century (Jobson, 1623; Purchas, 1625), with the first European ships reaching Australia after passing the west coast of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope in the early seventeenth century. It is perhaps then to be expected that the first European to publish a detailed description of the Australian Aborigines (Dampier, 1697) should compare them with dark skinned and broad nosed Africans with whom they had a superficial physical and cultural similarity. Dampier, who was perhaps not the most reliable of witnesses, described the inhabitants of the Western Australian coast as follows.

Their hair is black, short and curl'd like that of the negroes; and not long and lank like the common Indians. The colour of their skins, both of their faces and the rest of their body, is coal-black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea (Dampier 1697; 313).

His implication that there was a connection between the native inhabitants of Australia and Africa is a theme which was to re-occur in the nineteenth-century (Curr, 1886-1888) but in the short term his comparison was criticised by Cook (Wharton, 1893) and Banks (Beaglehole, 1962). Joseph Banks, the botanist on the Endeavour voyage, noted that the people in the vicinity of Port Jackson "were blacker than any we have seen on the voyage tho by no means negroes,...; the hair of their heads was bushy and thick by no means woolly like that of a negro..." (Beaglehole, 1962). Later Flinders (1814), Baudin (Cornell, 1974) and Péron (1807) confirmed this description and distinguished between the hair form, skin colour and general physique of Aborigines from New South Wales and the indigenous inhabitants of Africa and New Guinea.

However this distinction was somewhat clouded by the apparently negroid appearance of the Tasmanians. In 1772 Nicholas Marion-Dufresne, the French commander of the Mascarin and Marquis de Castries, recorded the first European contact with a Tasmanian Aboriginal, unfortunately this contact was physical rather than social and the native was shot. Marion-Dufresne (Unpublished Journals) recorded that the hair of this individual was woolly and separated into shreds like the Mozambique Coffres although the skin, after the removal of charcoal pigment, was reddish-brown rather than black. Cook's third voyage in 1776 confirmed the existence of this woolly haired race.

They are of a middling size or rather smaller than most Indian nations: their colour is a dull black and not quite so deep as that of the African Negroes. Their hair however is perfectly woolly,..., and it is clotted or divided into small parcels... (Beaglehole, 1962: 785).

Following this Cook was able to draw a clear distinction between the cultural and physical attributes of the inhabitants of Tasmania and the Aborigines from more northerly parts of the Australian coastline. Therefore, prior to Bass's discovery and navigation of Bass Straight in 1797 (Dunmore, 1992), it appeared that there were at least two distinct groups of people inhabiting the one island continent. After 1797 the apparent dichotomy between the Aboriginals of Tasmania and the Australian mainland presented less of a problem and theories were advanced in explanation of this distinction (Labillardiére, 1800; Huxley, 1870; Topinard, 1872; Cauvin, 1883). Labillardiere (1800: 314) noted the apparent similarity in hair form and skin colour between the Tasmanians and the natives of New Caledonia, a connection supported most recently by Howells (1976), and Flinders (1814) expressed some puzzlement over how the Tasmanians had reach Tasmania.

The smokes which had constantly been seen rising from it (Tasmania) showed that there were inhabitants; and this, combined with the circumstance of there being none upon the islands (Bass Strait islands), seemed to argue a junction of Van Diemans Land with New South Wales; for it was difficult to suppose, that man should have reached the more distant land, and not have obtained the islands immediately situated;...(Flinders, 1814: cxxxvi-cxxxvii).

Although at European contact the Bass Strait Islands were indeed unoccupied archaeological deposits dating to as early as 23,000 BP have been excavated on Hunter Island (Bowdler, 1984) and 14,000 BP on Flinders Island (Sim, 1990). During glacial sea level declination Tasmania was connected to the Australian mainland, with the existing islands forming hills in the Bassian Plain. People could have easily walked to Tasmania from what is now the State of Victoria. South-western Tasmania was occupied by 30,000 BP, suggesting that Tasmania was initially colonised during the low sea level phase of 29,000 to 37,000 years BP (Cosgrove, et al., 1990). Sea levels rose and flooded the Bassian Rise connecting Victoria to Flinders Island and north-eastern Tasmania between 12,000 and 13,500 years BP (Jennings, 1971; Chappell and Thom, 1977). The Tasmanians apparently did not have adequate watercraft to cross Bass Strait, or reach the major islands within it, so with high sea levels came isolation.

The early years of the nineteenth-century witnessed a dramatic increase in the exploration of the Australian continent in association with the establishment of large scale European settlements. Written accounts of expeditions around the coast, and to the interior, appeared in rapid succession and the majority of these contained either detailed or anecdotal references to the Australian Aborigines. For these Europeans who were interested in the broad field of Anthropology and human variation, but who had not visited Australia themselves, this literature must have presented them with somewhat of an enigma. Leaving aside the question of the Tasmanians, a wide variety of physical types had been reported from the mainland itself. Aboriginal hair was variously described as "short, smooth, straight, and glassy" (Péron, 1809: 74), "long and curly" (King, 1827: 42), "not wool as in most other black people, but hair" (Collins, 1798-1802: 544), and "wavy-crisp or frizzled" (Martin, 1864: 284). As hair colour and form were considered to have racial significance confusion was certain to arise when terms like "frizzled", an occasional analogue for woolly, were used to describe the hair of some mainland Aboriginals. A confusion heightened by Dampier's (1697: 313) original reference to the Australians having hair like the African negroes. Similarly, descriptions of skin colour ranged from "black" (Martin, 1864: 284), to "not so black as the Africans" (Péron, 1809: 74), some nearly black "while others have exhibited only a copper Malay colour" (Collins, 1798-1802: 554), to two distinct shades (Howitt, 1865: 257, Martin 1864: 284) and even rumours of "an almost white race" (Stokes, 1846: 73). Sharp distinctions, though not usually based on actual observation, also frequented the more general anthropological literature, with divisions drawn between the coast and inland tribes. Initially this simply reflected the limited exploration of the hinterland combined with the distinctions drawn by the Aboriginals themselves. However, these regional distinctions continued even after apparent personal contact with groups inhabiting the interior of the continent.

The tribes of natives in the interior excel those of the sea-coast in bodily structure. They are more muscular, taller, and apparently more intelligent;... some of those we met had a profile more resembling that of a Polynesian, or a Keloenesian of the first division (New Hebrides, c), rather than that of the second division to which the Australian belongs (Martin, 1864: 283-284).

How was this variation to be interpreted and what was its significance in terms of Australian origins. At least in England and Germany, the direction this interpretation would take was undoubtedly influenced by Darwin's (1859) publication of The Origin of Species and the subsequent work of Huxley (1864) and Haeckel (1868) on the origin of Homo sapiens and racial variation. One of the central themes to emerge from this combined research effort was that the homeland of the genus Homo was in Africa, from which people had eventually spread and colonised the world. Interest then focused on geographic variation and the links in the chain of human distribution. Resulting from this was a general working assumption that the Australian Aboriginal had an origin which was external to the Australian continent. Depending upon how the variation within living Australians was interpreted Australia was colonised by either a single, or multiple, founder populations with an origin somewhere in the Old World.

The first detailed consideration of the Australian Aboriginal to emerge from this biological revolution was that of Thomas Huxley (1870). Huxley, who had visited Australia, argued that the indigenous population of the Australian mainland could be distinguished by a common set of physical characteristics. These included, stature and limb proportions (absolutely slender legs), skin colour (some shade of chocolate-brown), hair which is raven-black, fine and silky and never woolly, large teeth with marked alveolar prognathism, and a markedly dolichocephalic cranium with prominent brow-ridges.

These characters are common to all the inhabitants of Australia proper (excluding Tasmania); and the only notable differences I have observed are that, in some Australians, the calvaria is high and wall-sided, while in others it is remarkably depressed (1870: 404).

Although stressing that the Australians were "one of the best marked of all the types or principal forms of mankind" (1870: 404) he also drew attention to their general similarity with some hill-tribes in Hindustan. This brief consideration of Australian origins is concluded by a review of a "most remarkable circumstance" in that "no trace of the Australoid type has been found in any of the islands of the Malay archipelago" (1870: 405). More than a century later this "remarkable circumstance" remains an area of conflict and confusion for most paleoanthropologists.

Huxley confirmed the earlier descriptions of Cook (Beaglehole, 1962) and Flinders (1814) in declaring the Tasmanians a race apart from the mainland population. They were described as a special modification of the Negroid type - the Negritos (1870: 406). These negritos could be distinguished from the African Negro in their skull showing a 'remarkable approximation' to the Australoid type with great brow-ridges and the cranium having a pentagonal cross-section when viewed from behind. Although Huxley's description of the Negritos is puzzlingly vague it appears that they share with African Negroes: woolly hair, depressed nasal bones and a dark skin. Similar people are also described from the Andaman Islands, New Guinea, the Torres Strait Islands and New Caledonia.

After a detailed comparison of Australian and Tasmanian crania, combined with a survey of travellers accounts of skin colour, hair form and stature, Topinard (1872) supported Huxley's description of the Tasmanians as Negritos. However, he differed from Huxley in considering the mainland population to be of mixed race. The modern population resulting from the hybridisation of a tall, robust, dolichocephalic, chocolate coloured and straight haired race with a race of smaller stature, black skin, woolly hair, and with several distinguishing features in the cranial skeleton (1872: 324-326). Undoubtedly, this vision of a mixed racial group was a direct result of his reliance on inaccurate reports of woolly haired and black skinned people inhabiting isolated parts of the mainland. In the essential details of this Topinard was supported by Davis (1874) and Cauvin (1883), although Cauvin did remark that "one can't tend to recognise that the physionomie of the natives from New Holland is closer to that of the Islands of Van Diemans Land than to the New Guineans" (1883: 248). Undoubtedly if greater emphasis had been placed on these shared aspects of "physionomie", rather than emphasising differences, the chimera of negrito Tasmanians would not have persisted as long as it did. In their attempts at racial categorisation a broader view of human variation was lost to a number of workers during this period, especially to those closeted in the comfortable isolation of Western Europe.

Given 12,000 years of isolation it is of little surprise that comparisons of cultural traits (Jones, 1977), external physical features and skeletal morphology (Topinard, 1872; Davis, 1874; Birdsell, 1949, 1967; Giles, 1976; Howells, 1976) have repeatedly distinguished the Tasmanians from their mainland counterparts. The perceptive German anatomist Herman Klaatsch (1908: 150) was one of the first to emphasise the effect that isolation probably had on the individuality of the Tasmanians "the Tasmanians...doubtless emerged from the same root as the Australian, and has become very distinct through isolation. Similar conditions have very likely existed in some other parts, not only in the islands, but also in the interior of Australia, the communications between different districts having been for a long time little developed. There has been time and room enough to effect local specialisations..." More recent research on the frequency and distribution of non-metric traits (Pietrusewsky, 1984; Pardoe, 1991) and skeletal morphology (Macintosh and Barker, 1965) adds considerable support to Klaatsch's interpretation. The Tasmanians are simply an extension of the south-eastern mainland Aboriginal population. While they certainly could be distinguished from their mainland counterparts the extent to which they differed has been overemphasised in some research (Tindale and Birdsell, 1941; Birdsell, 1949; Birdsell, 1967) and is actually less than would be predicted by the extent of their isolation (Pardoe, 1991). Importantly the morphology of skeletal material excavated from King Island in Bass Strait, and dated to 14,500 years BP, falls within the range of recent south-eastern Australian Aborigines (Sim and Thorne, 1990). It is no longer necessary to construct elaborate scenarios of boatloads of negrito Melanesians sailing directly down the eastern coast of Australia to settle Tasmania.

The lasting legacy that the Tasmanians, and early descriptions of physical and cultural variation on the mainland, provided was that to many anthropologists the founding Australian population were 'negrito' Tasmanians. On the mainland, with the possible exception of the Cairns rainforest (Tindale and Birdsell, 1941; Birdsell, 1967), these negritos had been subsequently displaced by culturally and physically distinct people from other parts of Asia. Archaeological deposits were also interpreted within this context. When it was first realised that a stratified, typological sequence could be identified in the artefacts at the Devon Downs rock shelter (Hale and Tindale, 1930) it was argued that separate migrations were represented. This did not alter until the chronological framework provided by radiocarbon dating enabled more detailed intrasite comparisons to be drawn. It became accepted that indigenous development in lithic technology was a reality of Australian prehistory and change did not have to have an external stimulus. With the increased archaeological activity of the 1970's and 1980's it became apparent that the notion of distinct waves of immigrants was totally devoid of archaeological support (White and O'Connell, 1982). This has not prevented continued debate over the significance of variation within the terminal Pleistocene Australian skeletal remains, some aspects of which are still explained by reference to separate founder populations (Thorne, 1976, 1977; Webb, 1989).

When the first fossil evidence of Australias occupation in the Pleistocene was described by Stewart Smith (1918) it was interpreted in terms of succeeding waves of morphologically distinct imigrants. Smith (1918) attempted to establish the antiquity of the Talgai cranium through comparison with European fossils, like Krapina and Piltdown, of presumed Pleistocene age. While stressing that the vault and facial skeleton where of "undoubtedly Australian type" he thought that the palate and canine teeth displayed "ape-like" traits. At the same time Talgais relevance to the settlement of Australia was established through comparison with Australian and Tasmanian crania. Smith concluding that his study of Talgai failed to reveal any Tasmanian affinities (1918: 383). More recent research on Talgai indicated that Smith had missinterpreted the morphology of the distorted palate (Helman, 1934; Macintosh, 1952), and while the canines are large they are close to the terminal Pleistocene Australian male mean in size (Brown, 1989). Talgai has not been directly dated but the soil horizon from which it may have originated has been dated to 11,650±100 years BP (Oakley, et al., 1975). Although historically important the fact that Talgai was crushed and distorted, of questionable provenance, a juvenile and damaged by various attempts at reconstruction has meant that this specimen has had only a minor role in the search for Australian origins.

Of greater consequence was the discovery of human skeletal material during sand mining operations near Keilor (Figure 1), on the Maribyrnong River, near Melbourne in 1940 (Adam, 1943; Mahony, 1943; Wunderly, 1943). Unlike Talgai the geological context of the Keilor skeleton was known and the cranial vault was free of distortion. Preliminary descriptions of the cranium were made by Wunderly (1943), with Adam (1943) describing the teeth and palate. Wunderly concluded that Keilor combined Australoid and Tasmanoid characteristics in about equal proportions" (1943:61). This in turn indicated to him that the Australians had a biracial origin, with the original population being Negritos. The interesting thing about Wunderly's conclusions as to the racial affliations of Keilor is that they were unsupported by his own analysis. He had been able to identify only one feature, pronounced parietal eminences, which he considered to be particularly Tasmanoid. Apart from Keilors extreme size all other aspects of its morphology fell within the range of south-eastern Australian mainland Aboriginal crania. Both Mahony's (1943) claim for extreme antiquity and Wunderly's description of the cranium received considerable criticism (Wood-Jones, 1944; Zeuner, 1944; Weidenreich, 1945). In reality Keilors morphology fits in well with recent research indicating that the Tasmanians were an extension of the south-eastern mainland population (Macintosh and Barker, 1965; Pietrusewsky, 1984; Pardoe, 1991). In retrospect, given the orthodoxy of the time, Wunderly had had little choice but to find Tasmanoid features in Keilor. If Keilor was dated to the Riss-Würm interglacial (Mahony, 1943) then it was inconceivable that Tasmanian features would not be present. One of the Keilor femur fragments has subsequently been radiocarbon dated to approximately 12,000 years BP (Brown, 1989),Table 1. Recent reseach has compared Keilor to a range of terminal Pleistocene and recent Australian Aboriginal crania with conflicting results (Thorne and Wilson, 1977; Freedman, 1986; Habgood, 1986; Brown, 1987). While sharing the large size and general robusticity common to terminal Pleistocene Australian crania it has minimal supraorbital development and a relatively orthognathic facial skeleton.

Although Talgai and Keilor increased the interest and speculation about the antiquity of Australian origins it was not until 1968-72 that human skeletal materials radiocarbon dated to the terminal Pleistocene were recovered in Australia. Alan Thorne's excavations of an Aboriginal cemetary at Kow Swamp, in northern Victoria (Figure 1), recovered the partial skeletal remains of more than 22 individuals, (Thorne, 1969, 1976; Thorne and Macumber, 1972). These were subsequently dated to between 13,000 and 9,000 years BP (Table 1). Thorne's descriptions of the crania emphasised their evolutionary relationships to populations within, and outside, Australia and to a lesser degree diachronic change since the Pleistocene. The Kow Swamp skeletons were described as those of a relatively large and robust people who maintained a variety of archaic early Homo sapiens characteristics in their fronto-facial skeletons (Thorne and Macumber 1972). In particular it was argued that the Kow Swamp frontal bones preserved "an almost unmodified eastern erectus form, specificially that of Javan pithecanthropines" (1972:319). It was later argued by Brothwell (1975) and Brown (1981) that the flattened frontal bones at Kow Swamp, and nearby sites of Coobool Creek and Nacurrie, in association with great cranial height, indicated that the crania had been artificially deformed rather than the persistence of an archaic morphotype. Nevertheless it is clear that the skeletons from these central Murray River sites can be distinguished from their mid-Holocene counterparts by their greater skeletal and dental mass, and general robusticity (Brown, 1987, 1989, 1992b).

In 1968 the geomorphologist Jim Bowler working at Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales discovered what is still the oldest securely dated human burial in Australia (Bowler et al., 1970). The Lake Mungo I cremation dated to approximately 24,000 years BP (Bowler et al. 1972). Reconstruction and description of Lake Mungo 1 was undertaken by Alan Thorne, however, only limited information has been published (Bowler et al., 1970; Thorne, 1971, 1976, 1977; Brown, 1987). Later, in 1974, Bowler discovered a second burial, Lake Mungo 3, not far from the first. This extended burial has been argued to be as old as 30,000 years BP based on its strategraphic relationship with Lake Mungo 1 (Bowler and Thorne, 1976). Unlike some of the crania from Kow Swamp the vault of Lake Mungo 1 is not large and robust and is without the frontal flattening evident in Kow Swamp 1, 5 and 7. While it had been argued that the Kow Swamp series retained archaic features connecting them with Indonesian Homo erectus (Thorne and Macumber, 1972) these attributes were not present in Lake Mungo 1 and 3. Thorne (1977) explained this dichotemy through reference to two distinct Pleistocene poulations. A "robust" group containing Kow Swamp, Cohuna and a "gracile" group consisting of Lake Mungo 1, Lake Mungo 3 and Keilor. It was argued that these two populations had different points of origin on the Asian mainland. The archaic and robust group from Indonesia the morphologically more modern group from southern China (Thorne, 1977, 1980). While this retreat to the 19th century dual population model provides for animated discussion it lacks the support of Thorne's own reasearch (Thorne and Wilson, 1977), and is contradicted by the only analysis to examine all of the fossils involved (Brown, 1987). At most the "gracile" population consists of a single individual, Lake Mungo 1, while Keilor and Lake Mungo 3 share the terminal Pleistocene traits of relatively great size and robusticity.

While the last 30 years have seen a dramatic expansion in the number of Australian archaeological sites dated to the Late Pleistocene (Table 1, Figure 1) the contents of these sites have shed little light on the geographic origins of Australia's founding human population. Australian Late Pleistocene stone tool assemblages can as readily be linked to the European or African Palaeolithic as any particular part of Asia. More might be expected of rock art as this is clearly the most individualistic, and widespread, aspect of Australian prehistory which remains today. However, not only have the Asian antecedents of Australian rock art not been identified but Australian art may be an indigenous development predating anything in Asia. The available Pleistocene skeletal materials from Asia and Australia are not of much help either. Although Franz Weidenreich is often given the credit it was Herman Klaatsch (1908) who first argued for a regional evolutionary sequence linking Indonesian Pithecanthropus with more recent Australians. Weidenreich (1943) extended Klaatsch's model, particularly with a specific comparison of Keilor with Wadjak 1 from central Java (Weidenreich, 1945). Keilor and Wadjak were described as being as similar as twins, with the implication of an ancestor descendant relationship between the two. For Weidenreich gene flow, or population movement could only have been operating in one direction, into Australia. Therefore, as he considered Wadjak 1 to be of Pleistocene age, and the claims for an early date for Keilor unproven, Wadjak 1 represented one of the Asian ancestors of later Australians. Subsequent reconstruction and cleaning of Wadjak 1 (Storm and Nelson, 1992) has reduced its resemblance to Keilor and Australian crania in general. More importantly the absence of extinct fauna in the Wadjak deposit suggests that the human remains may only date to the Holocene (Theunissen et al., 1990). From the evidence available at present it appears that Wadjak 1 is both morphologically inconsistent, and chronologically too young, to be of direct relevance to Australia's founder population.

The only example of Homo sapiens from south-east Asia which may be old enough to be associated with the first migration of people to Australia is the deep skull from Niah Cave in Borneo (Brothwell, 1960; Kennedy, 1977). This poorly preserved juvenile cranium has been radiocarbon dated, on the basis of apparently associated charcoal, to 39,820±1012 years BP (Oakley et al., 1975). Unfortunately the cranium has not been directly dated and Wolpoff (1980) is sceptical of the contemporaneity of the dated material and human skull. The teeth are not particularly large and fronto-facial morphology appears to have more in common with people of Asiatic, rather than Australian Aboriginal, descent. Regardless of the actual age of the deep skull if the TL dates of 50,000 years BP for human occupation at Malakunanja II in northern Australia are correct (Roberts et al., 1990a, 1990b; Bowdler, 1990; Hiscock, 1990 ) then Niah cave is too recent to be associated with the initial colonisation of Australia. In south-east Asia the only other hominid skeletal materials which may be of relevance, albeit indirectly, to the eventual colonisation of Australia are those from the Homo erectus localities of central Java. None of the Homo erectus materials have been directly dated and the majority appear to be secondary depositions, with age estimates ranging from approximately 900, 000­700,000 years at Sangiran to 200,00­100,000 years at Ngandong (Watanabe and Kadar ,1985; Bartstra et al., 1988; Pope, 1988).

Claims for an evolutionary sequence linking Indonesian H. erectus with later Australians are of long standing (Klaatsch, 1908; Weidenreich, 1945; Coon, 1962; Larnach and Macintosh, 1974; Thorne and Wolpoff 1981). Most recently, while stressing the differences in grade between Indonesian H. erectus and Australian H. sapiens, Thorne and Wolpoff (1981) identified a number of morphological clade features which are, in combination, at their highest frequency in the Australasian region. These regional clade features include frontal flatness, marked facial prognathism, presence of a prebregmatic eminence, location of minimum frontal breadth, tooth size, and an inferior location of maximum bi-parietal breadth. These traits are said to occur at a high frequency in recent Aboriginal crania, a number of the Kow Swamp­Chuna crania and Sangiran 17. Critiques of Thorne and Wolpoff's regional continuity model have pointed out that the majority of their regional traits are inappropriate (Groves, 1989, Bräuer, 1989, Brown, 1992a). Some occur at high frequencies in other regions, while others appear to be primitive retentions and the majority are only clearly expressed in male crania. It would be a particularly unusual evolutionary sequence that could persist without the female of the species. In addition Thorne and Wolpoff's (1981) selective use of the Australian fossil record severely undermines their argument (Brown, 1992a). Their regional morphological traits are either poorly expressed, or not present, in the Lake Mungo crania and Keilor. These do not have flattened frontal squama, prebregmatic eminences, a relatively inferior location of maximum bi-parietal breadth or particularly prognathic facial skeletons.

A final Australian fossil which has received considerable publicity is WLH50, recovered from a deflating land surface in the Garnpung/Leaghur Lakes region of south-western New South Wales (Flood, 1983; Thorne, 1984; Stringer and Andrews, 1988; Wolpoff, 1991). There have been difficulties dating this fragmentary cranial vault, although on morphological grounds Wolpoff (1991) considers that it is older than the Lake Mungo remains. Current dates for WLH50 range from an electron spin resonance estimate of 30,000 years BP (Caddie et al., 1987) to a radiocarbon date of modern. Morphological assessments vary from stressing its similarity to Ngandong (Stringer and Andrews, 1988; Wolpoff, 1991) to suggestions that the vault is pathological (Webb, 1990; Brown, 1992a). The most striking feature of WLH50 is the large size of the vault, with an estimated endocranial volume of 1540 ml, vault bone which averages 18mm in thickness and a maximum cranial breadth located in a basal position. Features cited in support of an association with Ngandong include the thickness of the vault, morphology of the frontal, inion prominence, occipital torus morphology and position of maximum cranial breadth (Stringer and Andrews, 1988; Wolpoff, 1991). Overall cranial shape, however, has little in common with Ngandong. The vault is long, but also extremely high and supraorbital development is minimal for an Aboriginal cranium of this size. The morphology of the inion, lambdoid and occipital torus regions are not unusual for an Aboriginal male cranium and unlike Ngandong (Brown, 1992a). In common with all of the other terminal Pleistocene crania so far recovered from Australia WLH50 provides little support for the notion of evolutionary continuity between the Indonesian and Australian regions.

Estimation of the time in which humans had first migrated to greater Australia has now been extended well back into the late Pleistocene. Over the last decade there has been a rapid increase in the number of archaeological sites in Australia and Tasmania which have been radiocarbon dated to >30,000 years BP (Bowdler, 1992),Table 1. The earliest, widely accepted, evidence for human occupation in Australia is 39,500 ± 2300-1800 BP for charcoal associated with stone artefacts from the Upper Swan in Western Australia (Pearce and Barbetti, 1981). More recently Roberts et al. (1990a) have argued on the basis of thermoluminescence dates from the Malakunanja II rockshelter that human occupation in Australia may predate 50 kyr. However, some concern has been expressed over the extent of the discrepancy between the radiocarbon and TL dates, and stratigraphic association of the artefacts (Bowdler, 1990; Hiscock, 1990). Roberts et al. (1990b) have defended their original assessment of the age of Malakunanja II. A date of around 50,000 years would correspond with a period of major glacial sea level declination, which although not enabling people to walk to Australia from southeast Asia, would have dramatically decreased the amount of ocean which needed to be crossed, Figure 1 (Birdsell, 1977; Chappell and Thom, 1977). Whether, or not, the original homeland of Australia's sea faring colonists was in mainland, or island Asia, remains unknown. The fossil skeletal materials so far recovered from both sides of the Wallace line do not provide convincing evidence, either of an Asian origin for Australia's founder population, or evolutionary continuity in this region. The question of origins and antiquity of Australia's human settlement will only be answered by future research in the Asian region, particularly in archaeological sites predating Australia's colonisation.



Dates for the earliest archaeological sites, and positively dated human skeletal materials, from Australia (Brown 1989; Bowdler 1992; Morwood and L'Oste-Brown In Press)

Archaeological site Years BP Dating method
Malakunanja II 50,000 Thermoluminescence
Upper Swan 39,500±2300-1800 14C on charcoal
Mandu Mandu Creek 34200±1050 14C on charcoal
Sandy Creek 31,900 +700/­600 14C on charcoal
Lake Mungo 31,100±2250-1750 14C on shell
ORS7 30850±480 14C on charcoal
Nunamira Cave 30420±690 14C on charcoal
Bone Cave 29000±520 14C on charcoal
Human skeletal material Years BP Dating method
Lake Mungo I 24700±1270 14C on bone collagen
Coobool Creek 65 14300±1000 U/Th on bone
Kow Swamp 5 and 9 13000±280, 9590±130 14C on shell, 14C bone apatite
Keilor 12000±100 14C on bone collagen
Nacurrie I 11440±160 AMS on bone collagen
Roonka 89 6910±450 14C on bone collagen


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Australian Index