Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Willandra Lakes Hominid 50

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 in 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 ml 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 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 35,000 years old.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008


  1. WLH 50
  2. Halfway Human
  3. Human origins and antiquity in Australia: an historical perspective
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 27/02/2011


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