Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

King Island Skeleton

A skeleton was found in a cave on King Island, Tasmania, in 1989. It was radiocarbon dated to 14270 +/- 640 BP (ANU-7039). At that time the cave would have been on the side of a plateau overlooking a plain. King Island was at the time connected to Tasmania and the mainland by dry land. It would have been about 20 km from the sea.

The remains were discovered by Robin Smith and studied by Thorne in situ with the permission of the Tasmanian Aboriginal  Centre, after which it was reburied. The bones were carbon dated from charcoal that was found adhering to some of the bones. The remains found were a cranium, mandible, a femur, fibula tibia, some vertebrae, and a number of other fragmentary bones. The bones were believed to be of a man about 25-35 years old at the time of death. The fully rounded cranium and flat face, that was flat and not prognathous and there was no brow ridge development, all leading Thorne to conclude the remains were of a gracile man.

The sex of the remains were later challenged by Peter Brown, but according to Flood the scale in the photos taken in the field confirm Thorne's findings that they were the bones of a man. The head of the relatively short femur is 49 mm in diameter, placing it outside the range for women.

This burial was apparently of the secondary disposal type, the bones being collected in a pile then covered by a pile of rocks inside the cave. There were small pieces of ochre on the cranium and femur, apart from these there were no grave goods. It is uncertain if the ochre was placed on the bones or had been on the body prior to decomposition, as had been recorded by explorers. A skull and a number of other bones were found. The skull was from a man about 25-35 years of age, and was of a gracile type. The fact that this skeleton was of the gracile type has been claimed by some as further evidence that the most southerly people were of the gracile type. This would imply that the first of the people to arrive in Australia were gracile, the later arrivals being more robust.

The form of the femur, short, robust femurs with big heads, is similar to that in modern people living at high latitudes or elevations, e.g., Inuit and Sherpas. It is an adaptation to the cold. These people had been living in Tasmania for 35,000 years and appear to have become short and stocky by 14,0000 BP, adapting to life in the cold Roaring Forties latitude.

This burial is the oldest evidence of the form of the earliest inhabitants of Tasmania. It also provides evidence for the early use of  secondary disposal burials and probably the use of ochre in burial rites.

Study of the skeletal remains from King Island, as well as from other Tasmanian sites such as those at West Point Midden and Mt. Cameron  West show that there were no differences between those of Aboriginal People from the Australian mainland and those from Tasmania in the distant past. Any differences noted since European contact has now been attributed to changes that took place over the 35,000 years the population of Tasmania, that was relatively small, was isolated from the rest of Australia, and being completely cut off by rising sea levels about 10,000 years ago. The changes that took place are in the direction of adaptation to life in a cold climate.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Flood, Josephine, 2004, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, JB Publications.


  1. The gracile male Skelton from Late Pleistocene King Island
  2. 1994: A flawed Version : sex and robusticity on King Island
  3. Pleistocene human remains from King Island, southeastern Australia


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 29/04/2011

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