Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Role of WLH 50 in Human Evolution

WLH 50 is a calotte of a young-to middle-aged man, of 1,450 cc capacity, that is considered to be about 26 ka (16.5-37.4 ka), of a modern human male that was discovered in dune deposits near one of the Willandra lakes, New South Wales, Australia. It is neither deformed nor altered in other ways by pathology, and most of its characteristics can be individually observed in other Australian Aboriginals dating to the Late Pleistocene/Holocene. It is a large vault that is key to understand how the worldwide pattern of human evolution is informed by Australia.

Wolpoff & Lee have tried to provide a description and comparative analysis of WLH 50 that addresses both issues of its normality and its similarity to other fossil remains that have been discovered in Australia, as well as the specific question of whether anatomical comparisons demonstrate a disproof of the hypothesis, that Ngandong, or a sample like it, is among its ancestors. It is shown by their description that WLH 50 demonstrates reticulation, in that it is shown by the preponderance of comparisons that there are significant similarities between WLH 50 and 1 or more of the Ngandong crania, some of which are unique to this comparison. No other cranium or group of crania that have been recovered from outside Australia or Indonesia has nearly as many similarities to WLH 50.

WLH 50 is not actually a member of a Ngandong-like population.  This is assured by the size difference alone, and no Ngandong specimen is exactly like WLH 50. Though all crania have idiosyncrasies, the ways in which WLH 50 differs from the Ngandong sample, for the most part, are in the characteristics in which it resembles recent and living populations, including Australian Aboriginals. Some, though certainly not all, of these are related to its large cranial capacity. Wolpoff & Lee conclude from the results of their comparisons and statistical analyses that there are anatomical details that are sufficient in form and number to suggest strongly that one of its ancestors is a population that is Ngandong-like; i.e., the hypothesis of Ngandong ancestry for WLH 50 cannot be disproved.  They imply from their comparisons and statistical analyses that as the pattern of cranial evolution in Australia resembles that in other parts of the world at the same time, there was gene flow from the rest of the world that was sufficient to allow adaptive genes to reach the Australian continent, to where they dispersed.

Considering the particular pathways of descent in Australia, the discussions of the anatomical features of WLH 50, and their comparisons with Ngandong remains reveals both a number of specific resemblances to 1 or more of the Ngandong crania, as well as other comparisons indicating WLH 50 is different from all of the Ngandong remains. In this monograph these were reviewed in a statistical manner, in the section of STATISTICAL APPROACHES. Both of the comparative samples were from Ngandong, and from earlier Africans, and cranial remains from the Levant in some studies. WLH 50 is most like the Ngandong sample in some tests, though in others a hypothesis of multiple ancestral sources for WLH 50 could not be rejected. There were no cases in which the African or Levant cases were similar to WLH 50, and no other population from Asia that is known to fill this role. Though for all human lineages and their populations Africa is the ultimate source , the fact that there is no African or West Asian  sample dating to the Pleistocene is demonstrated to be a unique ancestor to WLH 50 addresses the hypotheses, that have been long-disputed, of Australian origins in this case at least it can be said with the degree of certainty that is allowed by these small samples, Ancestry of Australian Aboriginal people  is from more than a single region, and is neither directly or uniquely African.

The work of Wolpoff & Lee suggests that some Australian remains from the Pleistocene display evidence of mixed ancestry, which has been suspected for a long time. It is shown by anatomical and genetic comparisons that the immediate ancestors of Australian Aboriginal people are from populations that a geographically the closest to Australia, the Ngandong from Indonesia, and nearby populations of East Asia. Of the many ancestors that can be inferred, Ngandong is only 1 thread, but it is an interesting one because it might also account for the high percentage of Denisovan genes that have been found in the Aboriginal people Australia, compared with other peripheral regions around Asia (Cooper & Stringer, 2013). The people migrating to Australia were mixed, as was their ancestry. Though no Neanderthal ever lived in Australia, Neanderthal genes are present in the indigenous population of Australia, and Wolpoff & Lee suggest the same is likely true for Denisovans. The main part of this work, the anatomical comparisons, suggest that in spite of these ancient mixtures, populations that had the greatest influence on anatomical variation in Australia were the closest Pleistocene age Indonesians, as well as Pleistocene populations from East Asia.

In the broader context, the pattern of complex ancestry and the direction evolution took for WLH 50 are compatible with the hypothesis of multiregional evolution (Caspari & Wolpoff, 2013; Thorne & Wolpoff, 2003; Wolpoff & Caspari, 1997).  The present work has, for the most part, not been about this wider issue, focusing instead on the comparative anatomy of WLH 50, and the specifics of its place in Australian and Australasian prehistory. But the broader discussions of human evolution that acknowledge the key importance of gene flow and mixture is the context for the significance of WLH 50.

The Australasian situation does not differ fundamentally from that of Europe in the Late Pleistocene or of other peripheries. Following the initial dispersals in the Early Pleistocene, it is demonstrated by evidence from the peripheries that the consequences of continued, significant and in many cases of mixture, as populations entering peripheral regions encountered populations evincing local ancestry (Thorne & Wolpoff, 1981; Wolpoff et al., 2001). This pattern is found all across the range of humans in the Pleistocene. In both the peripheral and central groups evidence is found of introgressions with older populations which indicates that all human populations carry evidence of mixing with other lineages of humans (possibly subspecies in some cases (Wolpoff, 2009), some ancient as well as some that were contemporary with them. Because modernity is shared by all populations through their interconnections, there have been many pathways leading to modern humanity (Caspari & Wolpoff, 2013).

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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