Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Willandra Lakes Hominid 50 See Willandra Lakes footprints

In 1980 the skull and some arm, hand and foot bones were found on the surface near Lake Garnpung, not far from Lake Mungo.

This skull and limb bones, the 50 th find of human remains from the Willandra region, Willandra Lakes Hominid 50 (WLH 50), is the most significant of the finds in the area. It is believed the bones eroded out of the Mungo sediment, but as they weren't in situ their original site, or which layer, is not known. The author of the paper to be published on the detailed analysis of the remains describes it as "much more robust and archaic than any Australian hominid found previously ".

An unusual feature of this skull is its preservation, the bone has been completely replaced by silica, the same process as opalisation. It has been said that this man is so robust he makes the Kow Swamp man look gracile, quite a statement, given that the most extreme of the Kow Swamp skulls was more robust than H erectus. The cranium is 210 mm long and very wide. The average thickness of the cranial vault bone is 16 mm. There is a continuous torus above the eyes formed by the massive brow ridges, and a flat, receding forehead. The occipital region of the skull is even more archaic than the other features, displaying substantial cranial buttressing. The neck muscles are huge and the extremely wide skull with the greatest width occurring very low in back view. The width difference above and below the ears is much greater than in any modern people. Combined with these extremely archaic features is a very large brain. With an endocranial capacity of 1450 ml it is much higher than the average of 1300 mm for modern skulls. Like the Kow Swamp people, the skull is flask-shaped from above, all the rugged features in the Kow Swamp people are much more pronounced in this this skull. It is unfortunate that the face, jaw and teeth of this skull are missing. enough of the rest of the body was found to suggest that his body was equally as massive as the skull. The surviving elbow bone is enormous.

The small amount of bone remaining gave an electron spin resonance (ESR) date of 29,000 +/- 5,000 BP, and more recently an OSL dating of 25,000 BP was measured. Some believe that it is more likely to be closer to 35,000 BP at least. There is disagreement about the connections between WLH 1 and WLH 50. Some claim it is simply not possible to have WLH 50 descended from people like WLH 1 because of the extreme difference in proportions as well as the form of the two. The skull bones of WLH 50 is 15-19 mm thick, those of WLH 1 is 2 mm thick.

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London took detailed measurements of WLH 50 and concluded that when the size was taken into account it was of modern type, but in shape it is closer to the Skhul-Qafzeh crania than to the other Australian samples. It now appears that the individual may have had a genetic blood disorder that in Indonesia, where it is believed the Aboriginal People came from, helps protect against malaria. One feature of the cranial thickening in WLH 50 is that it differs from other modern Aboriginal People, in that whereas it is common for the modern male Aboriginal skulls to have some thickening in parts of the cranial vault, WLH 50 had it over the entire vault. If WLH 50 did in fact have a blood disorder it might mean that he was one of the earliest arrivals from Indonesia as there was no malaria in his new home it would be eliminated from the gene pool over the millennia since his arrival in Australia. As at least some of the oldest dated sites in Australia are of a gracile people, maybe he was among, or descended from, more recent arrivals, that still carried the blood disorder that was lost from the gene pool of people who had been in Australia longer, where there was no endemic malaria.

The confusion over the actual dating of the skull, the silica replacement of the bone indicating a very long burial, while the dating was difficult because of the isolated position of the skull, with no possibility of dating associated material, allows some to hold the view that it may actually be more than 35000 years old.

The calvarium of WLH-50 has been used in a study to test the recent African origin theory, that has been suggested to completely replace the archaic forms, known as Homo erectus, so that H. erectus did not contribute to the ancestry of modern Australasians. They compared data for WLH-50 and 3 potential contributors to the ancestry of WLH-50 (Ngandong, Late Pleistocene Africans, Levant hominids from Skhul and Qafzeh) concluding that the results unambiguously refute the complete replacement of these potential contributors to the ancestry of the Australasians, suggesting that the Ngandong hominids should be reclassified as Home sapiens (Hawks et al., 2000).

Not all agree with Hawks et al. Bräuer, Collard and Stringer criticise the methods of Hawks et al., not accepting that their study disproves the Out of Africa hypothesis that requires the complete replacement of earlier populations.

A personal view

This view is based solely on the way things appear to be from what I have read when searching for information for my site. It is obviously not technical, more along the lines of  'if it quacks like a duck ...etc'. Throughout my site I have tried to present the information I find from both the believers and the non-believers point of view, as is the case of WLH-50 and the Out of Africa hypothesis. Who has the most accurate dates for Mungo Man (WLH-3)?

In the recent BBC documentary, Human Journey, based on the Out of Africa hypothesis, the very modern African appearance of the Andaman Island people of the present, and the reconstruction of a skull from India to reveal a modern African appearance, is presented as evidence of the migration from Africa 70,000 years ago. I can accept that, but where I have a problem is trying to imagine this tiny group of Africans, that parted ways from the slightly larger group that set out from Africa, completely replacing long established populations of H. erectus, that presumably were well adapted to their environment, they had been there a long time, as they ran towards Australia. I say ran because they had to get to Australia and, at least it seems to me, completely change their appearance, in less than 10,000 years to be in Australia by 60,000+ years ago. The obvious African features of the Andaman Islanders differs form that of any of the known early Australian crania, as well as modern Aboriginal People. They would also have to learn to survive in that alien environment, with a completely unfamiliar suite of potential food plants they had to find without killing themselves, as in learning how to process cycad fruit to remove the toxins. At the time of their arrival, in the Pleistocene, there were still many of the megafauna animals to deal with. Where the megafauna appear to be referred to in the Dreamtime stories it is usually from a point of view of fear rather than a triumphant hunt.

Is it possible the African migrants passed from Africa, through Indonesia to Australia some time in the last 70,000 years, and by 60,000 years ago looked like Australian Aboriginal People, without mixing with populations that already looked similar to the Aboriginal People, if somewhat more robust, as the earlier population of Indonesia did. And the sites that have been dated to 60,000 years BP are on the present day dry land, not on the continental shelf where they would have landed when they arrived on the last leg of their island-hopping journey, presumably the landing would have occurred some time before 60,000 years ago. After they landed, did they live near the sea they knew for some time before spreading to the interior, that is now the coast, or sprint inland to the sites that have now been excavated, such as Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila I, in Arnhem Land, that at the time were covered with plants they weren't familiar with, so presumably they would have needed some time to work out which plants they could eat.

Is it necessary for a new group to eliminate the older group for the mtDNA from the African group to be inherited by modern descendants? Wouldn't the same result be achieved if the genes of the new group entered the gene pool of the older, much larger group, where it could spread rapidly throughout a territory. Presumable the new genes would confer some advantage that could be selected for. It seems to me this is more likely to explain how some genes, in particular the mtDNA, could be found in individuals who retained some archaic features, as is the case in some of the people whose crania have been described as robust, while others have been described as gracile. The morphological variability among the earliest known people in Australia has been found to be greater than in later skeletal material and the modern Aboriginal People. The modern Aboriginal people have one of the highest degrees of morphological variation in the world. To me this doesn't fit with the original colonists being a homogeneous group with physical features that differ from any known Australian crania.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008


WLH 50

Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  30/09/2011

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