Archaeological excavations by Alan Thorne at Kow Swamp, 10 km south-east of Cohuna in the central Murray Valley, between 1968 and 1972 recovered the partial skeletal remains of more than 22 individuals (Thorne 1969,1975, 1976; Thorne and Macumber 1972) (google map https://www.google.com.au/maps/place/Kow+Swamp,+Gunbower+VIC+3566/@-35.9613399,144.29369,13890m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x6ad97037c3bd1a5f:0x2a0579a46d5e0bd0). The oldest radiocarbon dates obtained from the site were on shell from the grave of KS5 of 13,000 ± 280 (ANU1236) and bone apatite from KS10 of 10,070 ± 250 (ANU-403b), with the youngest dates at approximately 6500 BP for KS16. While both shell and bone apatite dates are problematic (Taylor 1987), morphological and cultural comparison with well dated skeletons like Nacurrie 1 support a terminal Pleistocene date for some of the burials. The Kow Swamp skeletons have not been published in detail, however, Thorne (1975, 1976; Thorne and Macumber 1972) provides limited information on the crania, mandibles and teeth. Several years ago the Kow Swamp skeletons were reburied at the request of Aboriginal communities in northern Victoria.
After 30 years the age of the Kow Swamp burials, particularly KS 9 which was the only burial excavated in situ, has recently been revisited. Stone and Cupper (2003) report optically stimulated luminesence (OSL) dates for Kow Swamp which they argue are at odds with the published radiocarbon dates. Their OSL dates indicating to them that the cemetary was in use between 22 and 19 ka, rather than 15 - 9 ka. While OSL may be providing a date for some sediments you have to question whether this has any implication for the Kow Swamp burials. The contemporaneity of the OSL dated sediments to the KS 9 burial, or any other KS burial, is unknown and you can not reconstruct the stratigraphy above the burials. It will never be known how deep the graves at Kow Swamp were, and the age of the land surface from which the graves were dug can not be measured with OSL. A similar situation to the debate over the age of another Australian burial, Lake Mungo 3. The best estimate of the age of the Kow Swamp burials is provided by the original radiocarbon dating, and more recent AMS dating of related sites in the region. The AMS dates on bone collagen from sites like Nacurrie and Coobool Creek suggest a range of 13 - 9 ka for Kow Swamp.
Initial descriptions of the Kow Swamp crania focused on the morphology of the fronto-facial region and overall size and robusticity (Thorne and Macumber 1972). It was argued that they displayed a complex of archaic characteristics not seen in recent Aboriginal crania. Archaic features were primarily concentrated on the mandibular body and on the cranium forward of the coronal suture. In particular a combination of receding frontal squama, massive supraorbital regions and a supraglabella fossae "preserving an almost unmodified eastern erectus form" (1972:319). These features indicated to the authors "the survival of Homo erectus features in Australia until as recently as 10,000 years ago" (1972: 316). I doubt that this is a view that either of the authors would still support. While supraorbital tori are occasionally present in recent and prehistoric Aboriginal crania these tori are distinct from those in the Indonesian hominids, particularly laterally and at glabella.
In 1975 Donald Brothwell challenged Thorne's interpretation of the Kow Swamp morphological pattern. Rather than reflecting the survival of an archaic morphotype, vault size and shape at Kow Swamp had been influenced by artificial cranial deformation. This was particularly clear in Kow Swamp 5 (Brothwell 1975; Brown 1981,1989). While not examining Brothwell's claims in any detail, Thorne (1977, 1989 ) has continued to deny the presence of artificial cranial deformation at Kow Swamp. Later research on skeletal materials from Coobool Creek and Nacurrie (Brown 1981, 1989) supported Brothwell's argument for the presence of artificial cranial deformation. This issue will be discussed in more detail in the page on the antiquity of cranial deformation.
Morphological and metrical comparisons of the Kow Swamp crania have distinguished them from modern Aboriginal crania (Thorne 1976; Pietrusewsky 1979; Brown 1987) and a more gracile group of Pleistocene crania represented by Lake Mungo 1, Lake Mungo 3 and Keilor (Thorne 1977; Thorne and Wilson 1977). More recent morphological and statistical comparisons have failed to provide any support for Thorne's dual Pleistocene population model (Brown 1987, 1995; Hapgood 1986; Pardoe 1991). Perhaps, more importantly, Thorne's dual population model was not supported by his own research. Thorne and Wilson (1977) had clearly demonstrated that Keilor was an extremely large and robust cranium, while a comparative analysis of Lake Mungo 3 had never been conducted (Brown 1987). The only one of the terminal Pleistocene skeletons which could be considered to be relatively small and gracile was the Lake Mungo 1 cremation. While Lake Mungo 1 was not a particularly large individual the influence of cremation on reducing the size of bones (Doklá dal 1971; Heglar 1984) has never been taken into account.
Thorne and Wilson (1977:399) argue that the Kow Swamp morphological patterns provide 'strong evidence that major morphological changes have occurred in the facial and frontal regions of Aboriginal crania from northern Victoria over the last 9000-10,000 years'. Subsequent research has confirmed this aspect of Thorne and Wilson's research (Brown 1987, 1989, 1992a, 1992b). Terminal Pleistocene skeletal remains from south-eastern Australia can be distinguished from their recent counterparts by their greater size and robusticity. This includes greater average stature, larger mean head and tooth size, thicker bones in the cranial vault, larger and more rugose areas of muscle attachment and greater mean endocranial volumes. There appears to have been a gradual reduction in body size after 9,000 years BP, with people of modern body size and shape appearing at around 6000 to 5000 years BP.
It has not been possible to gain acess to the Kow Swamp skeletons since 1985, and they have now been repatriated. For a variety of reasons, access to the original skeletons was also limited and detailed descriptions were never published. The current generation of biological anthropologists, with PhD's post 1985, would also not have been able to examine comparative reference collections large enough to gain a realistic perspective on normal anatomical variation. Therefore, it is not surprising that there have not been any significant insights into the life and times of the Kow Swamp people in more than 30 years. They are now just one of the many anthropological footnotes in the story of pre-European Australians.
Casts of some of the Kow Swamp crania and mandibles were held by the late Dr. A. Thorne, Archaeology and Human Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra (casts now relocated to the Shellshear Museum, Anatomy, University of Sydney). Casts of Kow Swamp were not broadly distributed, however, the Natural History Museum in London and a few other institutions have casts of KS1 and 5. Despite extensive reconstruction, the Kow Swamp material was extremely fragmentary, with only two of the crania, KS1 and 5, being relatively complete. Preservation was particularly poor for the basicranial areas and post-depositional warping was a problem with KS1 and 14. There are some substantial differences in the published data (Thorne and Macumber 1972; Thorne 1976; Thorne and Wolpoff 1979; Brown 1989), some of which can be resolved through access to the available casts and photographs. Individual data for KS5 can be found in the section on artificial cranial deformation. Craniometric data for Kow Swamp, and other terminal Pleistocene Australians, is available in the Research Resources section of my home page.
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Brown, P. 1981. Artificial cranial deformation: a component in the variation in Pleistocene Australian Aboriginal crania. Archaeology in Oceania 16:156-167.
Brown, P. 1987. Pleistocene homogeneity and Holocene size reduction: the Australian human skeletal evidence. Archaeology in Oceania 22:41-71.
Brown, P. 1989. Coobool Creek: A morphological and metrical analysis of the crania, mandibles and dentitions of a prehistoric Australian human population. Terra Australis 13. Department of Prehistory, Australian National University, Canberra.
Brown, P. 1992a. Post-Pleistocene change in Australian Aboriginal tooth size: dental reduction or relative expansion? In T. Brown and S. Molnar (eds.), Human craniofacial variation in Pacific Populations, pp. 33-52. Anthropology and Genetics Laboratory, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
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