Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

WLH 50: How Australia Informs the Worldwide Pattern of Pleistocene Human Evolution – A Review


WLH 50 is an opalised cranium and partial skeleton that was found on a lake shore to the north of Mungo, which is much more robust and archaic than any hominid from Australia previously found. Compared with WLH 50 the remains from Kow Swamp look gracile. Regional continuity linking Indonesia and Australia is greatly enforced by this new specimen. In Australia the morphological sequence that has been found shows clearly that regional features must be separated from grade features seen worldwide so the differing patterns of human evolutionary change in the Late Pleistocene can be understood (Thorne, 1984).

The details of Australian prehistory have continued to be discussed for more than 199 years and play a key role in the ongoing understanding of human evolution across the world in the Pleistocene and Holocene. Questions concern how humans in Australia relate of other populations of humans. Are there 1 or several ancestral sources involved, and how to untangle the complex pattern of migrations to Australia? In this monograph Habgood turns to WLH 50, a specimen that was previously undescribed that informs these and other related issues. WLH 50 is a calotte of a large (1,549 cc) young to middle age male that was recovered from dune deposits near the Willandra Lakes, New South Wales, Australia. The anatomy of this specimen and the question of whether and how its anatomy reflects its ancestry is the overarching issue it has raised. WLH 50 addresses some of the more general issues that are prominent in studies of the evolution of humans in the Later Pleistocene and Holocene more than any other fossil human found in Australia. The prevalence of evidence for mixture between hominids that seem different that has now been recognised in studies of human genetics is one of these (Pääbo, 2014). The recognition that there was more genetic variation between groups of these mixing groups than in now evident in Homo sapiens is another (Hawks, 2013).  The consequences of these 2 facts should be evident from anatomical studies and genetic studies, and WLH 50 could potentially address them. Australian prehistory may be seen to resemble the prehistory of Europe in this regard, in that there is a complex ancestry of modern Europeans in which there was a mixing during the Pleistocene between different subspecies (Wolpoff & Lee, 2001).

Australia is one of the regions of the Old World that was most recently inhabited. That the human migration or migrations to Australia is widely, and possibly universally accepted, were of modern humans with an established, sophisticated seafaring technology (O’Connell et al., 2010) that was based on bamboo (Birdsell, 1977). There is no reason to expect that once purposeful; though sporadic, movement to the Australian continent began it would be interrupted for long. By 50,000 years ago the ancestral indigenous Aboriginal people had begun to cross Wallacea, a biogeographic divide across gaps, some as much as 70 km of ocean (depending on the sea level at the time of their travel, a distance that was far enough beyond the horizon that it was not possible to see the land that was present over the horizon. It is not likely that once in Australia it would be possible to return because of the prevailing currents and the lack of bamboo-like materials for building boats  in Sahul (Allen & O’Connell, 2008); Westaway & Lambert, 2014). It is considered by many that this was Australian colonisation rather than a dispersal, as Sahul was previously uninhabited (Balme, 2013).

It has not been possible to find the deep prehistory of Australian ancestors in Australia. In this context comparisons of the fossil record from the Late Pleistocene and Holocene in Australia and the nearby islands is significant. As Australia is in a peripheral location, is isolated by sea, and there was gene flow to Sahul that was limited to the Late Pleistocene and was mostly only one-way, Australia has come to play a unique role in understanding the worldwide pattern of human evolution in the Pleistocene, and key issues are addressed by WLH 50 in relation to recent indigenous Australian ancestry. It is clearly reflected by comparisons of anatomy, as well as genetic evidence, that what has long been obvious; ancestral Australian Aboriginal people came from East and Southeast Asia, and the timing of this migration has been discussed and researched for more than a century.

There was a succession of scientists throughout the 20th century contending that the source population of ancestral Aboriginals was Indonesia. First, the putative Indonesian ancestors were believed to be the Pithecanthropus remains that were known from Trinil (later including the Sangiran crania), and finally settled to be their descendants that were represented by Ngandong crania that were more recent. According to Habgood Ngandong is the sample of potential ancestors that are geographically nearest to Australia in space and in time nearest to WLH 50. The contention that some of the ancestors of indigenous Australians were from Ngandong, or from Ngandong-like populations, continues to be controversial. There is a problem with Ngandong ancestry because the Ngandong crania are variously classified as Javanthropous soloensis, Pithecanthropus soloensis, or a Homo erectus that was a late survivor, though only rarely as Homo sapiens. The implications assessed for the contention that Ngandong was one of the ancestors of recent indigenous Australians reflects issues of race that have plagued palaeoanthropology from its beginnings (Wolpoff & Caspari, 1997).

It is believed that WLH 50, because of its age and anatomy, is well positioned to address these, as well as other related issues. In this monograph Habgood & Hee present the full, complete details of observations of the anatomy and the measurements possible on the WHL 50 calotte, and compare these systematically to the adult crania from Ngandong, following the pattern of monographs and long papers on fossil hominid crania that are descriptive and comparative (e.g. Condemi, 1992; Frayer et al., 2006; Heim, 1976; Sergi, 1948; Suzuki, 1970; Weidenreich, 1943). According to Habgood in doing this measurements and observations are relied on for WLH 50, the crania from Ngandong and Kow Swamp, and observations of the Coobool Creek crania by Wolpoff, descriptions and observations of Ngandong (Weidenreich, 1951) and cranial capacity assessments  for Ngandong (Holloway, 1980), as well as sources cited below.

The intent was to examine systematically the possibility that a population of Ngandong, or Ngandong-like people, is among the ancestors of WLH 50; and this was treated as a null hypothesis.

WLH 50 was also compared to a selected sample of Australian fossils in order to address the issue of whether its anatomy is a reflection of pathology, and to what extent its features lie within the range of variation of anatomy in the Pleistocene and Holocene Australia. A variety of tests and approaches were also used to compare metric and non-metric aspects of WLH 50 to the sample of crania from the earlier African Pleistocene crania, to examine if there was a credible case for a unique ancestry from Africa without input from Ngandong.

Finally the importance of population genetics and palaeogenetics in respect to gaining an understanding of sources and migration patterns to Australia was discussed. Much is known about the deep and recent history of the region based on genetic analyses, in spite of the lack of availability of mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA for WLH 50 or Ngandong, and their relationships.

The aim of this monograph was to provide a description and interpretation of the WLH 50 fossil. The place of WLH 50 in human evolution, and what the pattern of human evolution has been to lead to such a place for this specimen was asked in this monograph.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Habgood, P. J. (2016). "WLH 50: How Australia Informs the Worldwide Pattern of Pleistocene Human Evolution By Milford H. Wolpoff and Sang-Hee Lee PB - PaleoAnthropology 2014: 505−564. DOI:10.4207/PA.2014.ART88." Archaeology in Oceania 51(1): 77-79.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 27/05/2017
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