talgai face talgai lateral

talgai teeth 1 talgai teeth 2

The Talgai cranium was discovered in 1884, embedded in the wall of Dalrymple Creek, on Talgai Station in the Darling Downs south-west of Brisbane. This heavily mineralised and encrusted cranium was eventually brought to the attention of Edgeworth David, Professor of Geology, at the University of Sydney (Smith 1918). David realised the importance of Talgai to a continent which, at that time, was without fossil evidence of early human occupation. After a photograph of Talgai was shown to the anatomist J.T. Wilson he recommended that it be purchased by the University. Talgai was then jointly announced to the British Association for the advancement of Science in Sydney in August of 1914 by Professor's David and Wilson. It was left to S.A. Smith to write the formal description of Talgai which was published in 1918.

Unfortunately for Smith Talgai's vault was crushed and distorted, a difficulty exacerbated by its sagittal and coronal sectioning during preparation. Nevertheless Smith concluded that the cranium was that of a 14-15 year old male whose cranial vault was "similar in all respects to the cranium of the Australian of to-day" (1918:382). In the face, palate and dentition, however, he identified what he considered to be more archaic characteristics. The canine teeth, for example, were interpreted as having a size and morphology consistent with an ape-like canine-premolar cutting complex. In his assessment of Talgai Smith had been strongly influenced by the appearance of the Piltdown forgery which combined an ape-like mandible with a human cranial vault. If Talgai was dated to the Pleistocene, or perhaps earlier, then given the beliefs of the time it should also have had this meld of modern human and ape characteristics.

Smith's assessment of the significance of Talgai's teeth and palate was subsequently refuted by Campbell (1925), Burkitt (1928), Helman (1934) and Macintosh (1952). The canine teeth while large were within the modern aboriginal range of variation (Campbell 1925) and the wear facets on the maxillary canines were not consistent with that in hominoid primates (Burkitt 1928). Reconstructions of the palate by Helman (1934) and Macintosh (1952) also indicated that there was nothing unusual about its shape. While broad, particularly anteriorly, this is a common feature of terminal Pleistocene Australian palates (Brown 1989). Perhaps the only unusual feature of Talgai's teeth is the relatively extreme molar wear for an individual of 14-15 years of age (Brown 1992).

Some recent references to Talgai have stressed its size and robustness, particularly for a juvenile cranium. Macintosh (1967) emphasised the connection between Talgai and Homo erectus highlighting "its prognathic face, its low retreating forehead, and its low vault, and huge canine teeth". Certainly Talgai did possess a receding frontal squama and low vault but, as is demonstrated by Smith's (1918) original photographs, this was primarily a result of severe postmortem compression and distortion. Thorne (1977) places Talgai, along with Kow Swamp and Cohuna, in his robust group of Pleistocene Australians which he distinguished from Lake Mungo and Keilor. More recent research by Hapgood (1986) and Brown (1987) has found little support for Thorne's dual Pleistocene populations. After several inappropriate attempts at reconstruction Talgai now consists of a number of eroded fragments from which little morphological or metrical information can be obtained. Although not directly dated the soil horizon from which Talgai may have originated has been dated to 11,650±100 years BP (Oakeley et al. 1975).

Recent research

Nothing of any substance has been done with the Talgai cranium in more than 30 years. A similar situation to the Mossgiel and Lake Nitchie skeletons that are also curated at Sydney University. If Talgai has not been repatriated, a micro ct based virtual reconstruction might provide interesting results.

Jim Allen's "The Curious History of the Talgai Skull" is worth reading and can be found at


Along with the Lake Nitchie and Mossgiel skeletons the Talgai cranium is located in the Shellshear Museum, Department of Anatomy, Sydney University. Researchers interested in obtaining access should write to the Head of the Department of Anatomy. When last I looked half of the vault was stuck in a mould and the other half was in fragments. As this was in the late 1980's it is possible that there has been a more recent attempt at reconstruction.



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. Terra Australis 13. Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.

Brown P (1992) 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. Adelaide: Anthropology and Genetics Laboratory, University of Adelaide, pp. 33-52.

Burkitt AN (1928) Further observations upon the 'Talgai' skull, more especially with regard to the teeth. Report of the 19th Meeting of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Science.

Campbell TD (1925) Dentition and palate of the Australian Aboriginal. Adelaide: Hassell Press.

Habgood PJ (1986) The origin of the Australians: a multivariate approach. Archaeology in Oceania 21:130-137.

Helman M (1934) The form of the Talgai palate. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 19:1-15.

Macintosh NWG (1952) The Talgai skull and dental arch: remeasurement and reconstruction. Oceania 23:106-109.

Macintosh NWG (1967) Fossil Man in Australia. ANZAAS 39th Congress University of Melbourne. Transcript of Australian Broadcasting Commission live broadcast.

Oakley KP, Campbell BG and Molleson TI (1975) Catalogue of Fossil Hominids. Part III: Americas, Asia, Australasia. London: British Museum of Natural History.

Smith SA (1918) The fossil human skull from Talgai, Queensland. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B 208:351-387.

Thorne AG (1977) Separation or reconcilliation? Biological clues to the development of Australian Society. In J Allen, J Golson, and R Jones (eds.): Sunda and Sahul. London: Academic Press, pp. 187-204.