The Problems of Australia's Deep Past - Part One
The Lake Mungo Fossils and their Consequences
Australian prehistory has remained a constant enigma since it was first contacted by European explorers in the early 17th century. Confusing physical descriptions and lack of familiarity with the region led to many speculations about who, when and how the people of Australia ended up so far away from the rest of humanity. Ever since the debate has raged about how many times Australia was colonised - once, twice, three times, multiple times from many different routes? Since the mid 2000’s the consensus has been reached that Australia was settled once, by the ancestors of the modern Aboriginal peoples. But this cosy vision is a paper-thin veneer, plastered over centuries of foment. Let us turn then to the problem of Australia.
The Victorian Imagination
Synthesising and compressing all the debates since 1642 left the Victorians with several burning questions about Australian prehistory, but none was so pressing as the issue of the Tasmanians. Put simply the accounts and descriptions of the people of Tasmania, as compared to the mainland Aboriginals, supported one major hypothesis:
The Tasmanians and the Aboriginal Australians were different populations from two different migration events.
The famous comparative anatomist Thomas Huxley had concluded that the Tasmanians were a Negrito people - short in stature, with the distinctive tight curly hair of other Southeast Asian Negrito peoples. Huxley proposed they had sailed to Australia from New Caledonia; in 1879 Francis Allen suggested they had arrived from Africa via a now sunken Indian Ocean land bridge; by 1938 the speculations had become wilder still - that the Tasmanians had come from South America across the Antarctic shoreline; that they had evolved on their island; that they were a Melanesian people who had island hopped around the Australian coast. James Wunderly cautioned that basing a theory of racial difference purely on the grounds of one or two features was inadvisable (but he suggested that crossing a ‘Mongoloid’ and a ‘Negroid’ would provide a ‘practical enquiry’ to solve the matter).
A number of anatomists and anthropologists were highlighting the continuity of Tasmanian and Aboriginal skull morphologies and their common material culture, indicating that the Tasmanians had arisen from the same founding group but differentiated through isolation. Still, scholars such as Ling-Roth and Meston were convinced the Tasmanians were an Asiatic Negrito people, who had been pushed to the margins of the landmass by an incoming group. This narrative was taken up with gusto by Keith Windschuttle, who argued that the Queensland Negritos (Barrineans) had been deliberately forgotten by a generation of politically correct archaeologists. We’ll return to this question of Australian Negritos later on.
Java Man & His Kin?
In 1891 the most remarkable discovery of its time came from the Dutch East Indian island of Java. The scholar and explorer Eugene Dubois, convinced he was correct that humanity evolved in Asia, had set out to prove himself right. He uncovered the first evidence of pre-human man - what we now call Homo erectus. Dated to between 700k and 1 million years old, his fossils are among the most important in scientific history, not until the 1920’s were older fossils recovered.
Earlier than this, in 1886, fossils began to be uncovered in Australia that would eventually prove the antiquity of colonisation. The ‘Talgai’ skull came first, followed by numerous others: Cohuna (1925), Keilor (1940), Nacurrie (1949), Coobool Creek (1950), Kow Swamp (1968-72), Lake Mungo (1968), Willandra Lakes (1982) and so forth. Many of these were ignored and placed into storage or sold to collectors and the full impact of their importance took nearly a century in some cases to be properly realised.
The Java fossils however became a sensation, catapulting both the researchers and the implications into the public eye. The hominin population presumed to live on the island became known as Pithecanthropus, later changed to Homo erectus. More remains started to appear as European academies poured money into expeditions - Wajak Man (1888), Solo Man (1931), Mojokerto Child (1936). The village of Ngandong (along with the other important sites Sangiran and Sambungmachan) produced many cranial fossils. These were classified as a new intermediary species Homo soloensis in 1932.
The integration of Darwinian thought into palaeoanthropology by Huxley relied heavily on the interpretation of both the Javanese fossils and living Aboriginal peoples. Many argued that the Aboriginal phenotype was a remnant of an ancient robust hominin form, linking Neanderthals to Australians. In the 1930’s the anthropologist W.F.F Oppenoorth combined the analysis of the Javanese skulls and the worldwide collection of fossils, in particular the Rhodesian Man, into a single overarching racial category - the Pithecanthropoid-Australoids.
This idea, that Aboriginals were ancestors of a regional clade from Southeast Asia-Oceania, remained central to the anthropological understanding of Australian prehistory for decades. Detailed work on the Java collections showed that a variety of sub-forms existed, but frustration with the endless proliferation of taxa led the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr to group everything in Java under the name H.erectus in the 1950’s, a move which has largely been retained. Nonetheless, the idea of a regional evolutionary morphology persisted and underpinned everything that happened when archaeologists finally began to study the fossils from Australia itself.
In 1918 the first major publication to discuss Pleistocene expansion into Australia came from Stewart Smith. He had examined the Talgai skull and decided it was Australoid with primitive ape-like features. This was refuted in the 1930’s with better comparative data; scepticism will forever remain given the tragically damaged state of the skull itself. The Keilor cranium from 1940 was assessed by Wunderly who reported a mixture of Tasmanian and Aboriginal features, a fact which suits everyone, regardless if you believe the Tasmanians were a separate or derivative population.
Kow Swamp finally introduced some radiocarbon dates into the mixture (> 20 individuals dated to between 13k - 9k BP) and cranial analysis showed the population to be of robust Pithecanthropoid/erectus origin. Thorne and Macumber (1972) argued that the frontal bones of the Kow Swamp fossils showed:
"an almost unmodified eastern erectus form, specifically that of Javan pithecanthropines"
But probably the most important discoveries came from Lake Mungo. The findings were a revelation at the time and remain the most enigmatic Australian fossils. The site in New South Wales was excavated at the end of the 1960’s and turned up three sets of human remains:
Lake Mungo One (Mungo Woman) - LM1
Lake Mungo Two - LM2
Lake Mungo Three (Mungo Man) - LM3
LM1 is one of the oldest, if not the oldest cremation burial on earth. The bones themselves were dated to between 24,700 and 19,030 BP, and the charcoal at 26,250 ±1120 BP. LM1 was burnt, the bones smashed and then burnt again a second time. In a move that will become frustratingly common as this article goes on - LM1 was repatriated in 1992 to the Three Traditional Tribal Groups (3TTG), consisting of the Paakantji, the Muthi Muthi, and the Ngiyampaa who have essentially denied all research requests. As of 2022 all the Lake Mungo remains, including LM1, are set to be secretly buried in unknown locations, to prevent any future access.
LM3 is probably a contender for the most important set of human remains in Australia. A well preserved ritualised burial with red ochre and the remains of a fire, LM3’s bones tell a fascinating story. Very tall at 6ft 5 inches (196cm), LM3 is decidedly gracile in build, with an almost feminine skull - a very different build and phenotype to the robust Kow fossils. The dating has proved controversial, with multiple tests and methods used reaching conclusions between 30 and 50 thousand years old. We’ll return to LM3 when we look at DNA evidence.
Depressingly, Lake Mungo has only become more difficult to access. All the excavated remains are set to be secretly buried and any new discoveries, from erosion, are left where they lie. The skeleton of a child was spotted in 1989. From the book The Bone Readers: Atoms, Genes and the Politics of Australia’s Deep Past:
“The 3TTGs have blocked research on Mungo Child, probably a contemporary of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, and discovered at Joulni in the late 1980s… The bones have remained in the dune, first covered with a sheet of corrugated iron and later protected with shade cloth and sand. There was talk of a salvage excavation, but it came to nothing.”
Even worse, in 2005 an entire adult skeleton appeared but was left open to the elements. By 2006 it had been destroyed by the wind and the rain. An inconceivable loss for archaeology.
A final crucial, but by no means solitary, find was dubbed Willandra Lakes Human 50 (WLH50). This was identified as a robust cranium with dating between 20-30kya.
How Many Times?
By now the reader might have spotted that the Australian fossil record is not consistent - a number of remains are classified as robust and some as gracile. Two solutions to this problem was put forward in the 1960’s:
Dual Origin: A robust Pithecanthropoid-Australoid population emerged as a separate branch of the family tree from the Javanese erectus peoples. These colonised Australia and were met by a gracile Homo sapien population descended from East Asians.
Single Origin: Alternatively, Australia was colonised once during the Pleistocene and remained extremely isolated, allowing great internal differentiation of morphologies.
A third minor theory was also developed in the 1960’s which we’ll discuss later but is worth introducing here.
Triple Origin: A robust Javanese population colonised Australia around 150kya. These were followed by Pleistocene Negrito humans around 50kya (in some versions these are swapped around), and finally one or more waves of Holocene humans, introducing fresh genes.
The Dual-Origin hypothesis, based on the distinction between the robust fossils (WLH50, Kow Swamp, Cohuna and Coohol Creek) and the gracile (Lake Mungo, Keilor and King Island) has always remained popular, but it has struggled to establish which way around. The dating for all the fossils has been distressingly erratic and limited, with most remains inaccessible to researchers. As the decades went on, the narrative of who arrived first - the robust population or the gracile - flipped with each new dating publication.
Head-Binding - An Answer To The Problem?
Artificial cranial deformation - the deliberate alteration of an infant’s skull shape when their bones are not fused and very soft - has a long and widespread history, including among the Arawe people of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago. Several anthropologists had noted that the unusual shape of many Australian fossils could be explained by either head binding or manual shaping of the skull during infancy. For those interested in making connections between these fossils and the Javanese population, the notion that the skulls could have been modified added extra pressure to demonstrate the validity of their claims.
DNA: Mitochondrial Eve & Her Children
In 1987 a landmark paper was published in Nature showing that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), extracted from modern human populations, could be combined with knowledge of genetic mutation rates to compute when the last common female ancestor of all humans lived. This turned out to be around 140 - 290 kya. Unsurprisingly this was a paradigm shift within archaeology, using genetics to confirm the ‘Out Of Africa’ theory of human evolution.
What this meant for Australian archaeology was profound:
That all humans, including modern and prehistoric Aboriginals, came from Africa within the last 200,000 years.
That they had managed to migrate across the world and colonise Australia without interbreeding with other human species.
That the Javanese erectus population had died out or was replaced by incoming humans.
So was the matter settled?
In the decade after the publication, a number of studies began to take seriously mtDNA in existing Aboriginal and Papuan populations, producing some confusing and contradictory results. But the real jaw-drop came in 2001, when a paper by Adcock et al threw this hand grenade into the archaeological fray:
“Lake Mungo 3 is the oldest (Pleistocene) “anatomically modern” human from whom DNA has been recovered. His mtDNA belonged to a lineage that only survives as a segment inserted into chromosome 11 of the nuclear genome, which is now widespread among human populations. This lineage probably diverged before the most recent common ancestor of contemporary human mitochondrial genomes. This timing of divergence implies that the deepest known mtDNA lineage from an anatomically modern human occurred in Australia; analysis restricted to living humans places the deepest branches in East Africa”
To paraphrase a Discover Magazine article from 2002 - the results showed he was not a match for anyone, alive or dead, on earth. He was not related to any African individual.
The lead researcher, Alan Thorne, was convinced that these results settled the dispute. Aboriginals were descendants of two populations, one unrelated to the modern movement of sapiens, the other a direct descendant. In his mind, Homo erectus was a fiction, and humans had in fact been living in Eurasia for over a million years, the gracile offspring of whom made their way to Australia and were eventually met by a more robust Papuan-like group of newcomers.
The response to these findings was explosive, responses in journals attacked the genetic mechanism, their methodology and insisted they must have contaminated the results. The researchers fired back, defending their workflow protocols, insisting they followed the strictest of procedures. But they would wait another 15 years for the rebuttal.
In 2016, a paper published by Tim Heupink and colleagues finally returned a proper genetic rebuke. Using different and more modern methods, they concluded that Adcock and his team had contaminated the samples, and that the genetic grouping to which Lake Mungo 3 belonged was consistent with Out of Africa. They also identified a novel haplogroup, S2, which was proof of deep Aboriginal separation once they arrived in Australia. They found no differences between the gracile and robust bodies, supporting the older idea that Aboriginal phenotypic difference was indigenous to the continent.
The ‘Pygmy Problem’
As discussed in the opening section, the question and possibility of a Negrito or Pygmy population in Australia has deep roots and never truly went away. An anthropologist and researcher, Joseph Birdsell, had conducted fieldwork in south Queensland during the 1940’s and published on his discovery of a ‘Negritoid’ race of Aboriginals. In 1967 he revealed to the world his ‘trihybrid’ model of Aboriginal descent.
The question of the Aboriginal Negrito was re-opened in 2002 by historians Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillin. Despite being criticised for right-wing political bias, they raised the question of what had happened to the academic study of this population after the 1960’s. Birdsell’s research was effectively excluded from incorporation into the mainstream consensus. Parallel to this of course was the rise in indigenous movements across the world, a feature of which was homogeneity or ‘pan-aboriginalism/indianism’, to counter the mainstream colonial narrative.
In this zeal for unity, it appears that research into pygmoid or Negrito populations came across as crass, racialist and Victorian, a ‘white man’s’ fantasy of finding lost races. Thus it was abandoned, forgotten, dismissed. Birdsell’s work with another anthropologist, Norman Tindale, detailed extensive contact with a tribe which they named ‘Barrineans’, after a nearby lake. As Tindale wrote in his 1963 book, Aboriginal Australians:
“Their small size, tightly curled hair, child-like faces, peculiarities in their tooth dimensions and their blood groupings showed that they were different from other Australian Aborigines and had a strong strain of Negrito in them. Their faces bore unmistakable resemblances to those of the now extinct Tasmanians, as shown by photographs and plaster casts of the last of those people”
The University of Sydney academic consensus - the ‘Sydney School’ position - was that all Aboriginal people descended from a handful of individuals. Prominent anthropologists such as Stan Larnach and N. W. G. Macintosh were insistent on this theory. As Larnach wrote:
“Three women and two or three men may have initiated the peopling of Australia. They probably arrived here by chance after being blown off course, or they may have been seeking refuge”
Tindale and Birdsell were academic outsiders, and they failed to change any minds in Sydney. Despite their work being popular elsewhere and contributing to a number of children’s books on the prehistory of Australia, it was the Sydney School position which fed into the 60’s Aboriginalism and overshadowed the existence of the Barrineans. Chris Ballard goes so far in his paper, Strange alliance: Pygmies in the colonial imaginary, as to describe such preoccupations with Negritos and short-statured peoples as ultimately rooted in an extreme racialist vision of the world, a charge most modern academics would baulk at receiving. Better not to tread those paths.
Today most researchers dismiss any speculations of Aboriginal Negritos as a political attack on the indigeneity of Aboriginal peoples, with the malicious intent of justifying Western colonialism. The Australian Museum online has a section refuting the existence of Pygmies, referring to it as a myth and a ‘political weapon’. We’ll see next time as to the genetic evidence used to claim a single origin for Aboriginal people.
This article has unravelled far beyond what I anticipated, both in writing and research. My intention was to produce one article with all the problems, but I couldn’t do justice to the remaining problems - earliest dates of occupation, spread of languages, arrival of the dingo and new stone tools, the genetic connection between Aboriginals and Indians, the puzzle over why the Austronesians ignored Australia, and so on.
If I have kept my reader’s attention then hopefully this has followed a story from the earliest discoveries of Australian fossils to the present day. We’ve seen how the study of these first fossils was bound up in intellectual ferment around the Javanese remains, and how this led to theories of how Australia was populated. We saw the debates over categorising phenotypes, and then genotypes, and how they went back and forth between multiple origins or a single one.
Ultimately the questions come down these:
Aboriginal Australians are phenotypically distinct from the rest of the human family - why?
Did they emerge from a separate lineage of hominins?
How many colonisation events led to the modern population?
Aboriginal Australians and Australian fossils show great variation:
Were the Tasmanians a separate population?
How many colonisation events do the fossils show?
What can DNA evidence tell us about Aboriginal ancestry?
Were/Are there any Australian Negritos?
Next time we’ll build on the evidence presented here and see if the Single Origin consensus can continue to hold water for much longer.
References & Further Reading
Roger Blench (2008) The Languages of the Tasmanians and Their Relation to the Peopling of Australia: Sensible and Wild Theories, Australian Archaeology, 67:1, 13-18, DOI: 10.1080/03122417.2008.11681875
Andrew Kramer. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. (1991) Modern Human Origins in Australasia: Replacement or Evolution?
Theories of Modern Human Origins: The Paleontological Test Author(s): David W. Frayer, Milford H. Wolpoff, Alan G. Thorne, Fred H. Smith and Geoffrey G. Pope Source: American Anthropologist , Mar., 1993, New Series, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Mar., 1993), pp. 14-50
Darren Curnoe, "A 150-Year Conundrum: Cranial Robusticity and Its Bearing on the Origin of Aboriginal Australians", International Journal of Evolutionary Biology, vol. 2011, Article ID 632484, 18 pages, 2011. https://doi.org/10.4061/2011/632484
Curnoe, D., 2009. Possible causes and significance of cranial robusticity among Pleistocene–Early Holocene Australians. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36(4), pp.980-990.
Brown, Peter. “Artificial Cranial Deformation: A Component in the Variation in Pleistocene Australian Aboriginal Crania.” Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 16, no. 3, 1981, pp. 156–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40386565.
Tuniz, C., Gillespie, R. and Jones, C., 2009. The bone readers: atoms, genes and the politics of Australia's deep past.
Adcock, G.J., Dennis, E.S., Easteal, S., Huttley, G.A., Jermiin, L.S., Peacock, W.J. and Thorne, A., 2001. Mitochondrial DNA sequences in ancient Australians: implications for modern human origins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(2), pp.537-542.
Trueman, J.W.H., 2001. Does the Lake Mungo 3 mtDNA evidence stand up to analysis?. Archaeology in Oceania, 36(3), pp.163-165.
Adcock, G.J., Dennis, E.S., Easteal, S., Huttley, G.A., Jermiin, L.S., Peacock, W.J. and Thorne, A., 2001. Lake Mungo 3: A response to recent critiques. Archaeology in Oceania, 36(3), pp.170-174.
Heupink, T.H., Subramanian, S., Wright, J.L., Endicott, P., Westaway, M.C., Huynen, L., Parson, W., Millar, C.D., Willerslev, E. and Lambert, D.M., 2016. Ancient mtDNA sequences from the First Australians revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(25), pp.6892-6897.
Bowler, J.M., Johnston, H., Olley, J.M., Prescott, J.R., Roberts, R.G., Shawcross, W. and Spooner, N.A., 2003. New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature, 421(6925), pp.837-840.
Forster, P., Torroni, A., Renfrew, C. and Röhl, A., 2001. Phylogenetic star contraction applied to Asian and Papuan mtDNA evolution. Molecular biology and evolution, 18(10), pp.1864-1881.
Stringer, C., 1999. Has Australia backdated the human revolution?. Antiquity, 73(282), pp.876-879.
Dubois, E., 1937. 1. On the fossil human skulls recently discovered in Java and Pithecanthropus erectus. Man, pp.1-7.
Burr, W.A. and Gerson, D.E., 1965. Venn diagrams and human taxonomy. American Anthropologist, 67(2), pp.494-499.
Coon, C.S., 1962. The origin of races.
Thorne, A.G., 1971. Mungo and kow swamp: morphological variation in Pleistocene Australians. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 8(2), p.85.
Wolpoff, M.H. and Lee, S.H., 2014. WLH 50: How Australia informs the worldwide pattern of Pleistocene human evolution. PaleoAnthropology, 2014, pp.505-564.
Habgood, P.J., 1986. The origin of the Australians: a multivariate approach. Archaeology in Oceania, 21(2), pp.130-137.
Thorne, A. and Sim, R., 1994. The gracile male skeleton from late Pleistocene King Island, Australia. Australian Archaeology, 38(1), pp.8-10.
Freedman, L. and Lofgren, M., 1979. The Cossack skull and a dihybrid origin of the Australian Aborigines. Nature, 282(5736), pp.298-300.