Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

WLH 50 Summary and Conclusions

Part of one of the last steps in the history of human evolution was the appearance and evolution of modern human populations in Australia in the Late Pleistocene. In this study Wolpoff & Lee have focused their attention of one key specimen, WLH 50 and concluded that the Ngandong people, or a population that was similar to them, were one of the ancestors of WLH 50, and therefore of later Australian Aboriginal people. They do not suggest these phylogenetic relationships as a hypothesis, as it cannot be tested with current technology. They suggest it as an explanation that is compatible with existing anatomical evidence and observations, in the hope that testing might eventually be possible. The implications are far-reaching if a reasonable interpretation involves a significant degree of Denisovan ancestry for the Ngandong people.

According to Hawks (2013: 441) it was assumed by many anthropologists prior to the recovery and sequencing of Denisovan genome that in the early Late Pleistocene South Asian and East Asian populations were relict populations of Homo erectus, that represented a population history that was relatively static from the initial habitation of Asia by humans. The genome of Denisovans appears to be inconsistent with that model.

Taxonomic Assessment

It is straightforward to evaluate the taxonomic assessment for WLH 50, and has been universally accepted - WLH 50 is an example of Homo sapiens from the Late Pleistocene. This diagnosis has been confirmed by the comparisons that were discussed in this monograph, though they have raised issues of taxonomy for the sample from Ngandong that were used for comparison with WLH 50. Based on the study of the evolution of Indonesian hominids leading to the Ngandong sample (Kaifu et al., 2008: 776) they characterise the concluding portion of the evolution as: Javanese Home erectus [that includes Ngandong] evolved along a path that was somewhat different to the one leading to H. sapiens. Ngandong was also regarded as H. erectus by others who have studied the remains from Indonesia, a late-surviving lineage Indonesian hominids (Antón, 2003; Antón et al., 2007; Huffman et al., 2010; Indriati et al., 2011; Rightmire, 1990).

Wolpoff & Lee do not believe there is anything wrong with the logic of this position, as far as it goes. Comparisons of Ngandong with Australian Pleistocene human remains were not included in any of these papers. It is suggested by Wolpoff & Lee if they had done so, an interpretation of the place in human history of Ngandong that was different would have been possible. The similarities between WLH 50, as well as some other Australian fossils with Ngandong include aspects of the Ngandong include aspects of the Ngandong remains that Kaifu et al. consider to be unusual or unique in the region. This supports the suggestion that some of the ancestry of Australian Aboriginal people was from these Indonesians, or a population similar to them. A phylogenetically ambiguous situation is created by these resemblances, at the very least. If the possibility that all the samples of Homo from the Early-to-Late Pleistocene are in the species Homo sapiens is accepted, the description that the Ngandong remains are both H. erectus, (from the demonstration that Ngandong is among the ancestors of WLH 50 and other Aboriginal Australians) defines a lineage that is difficult to name, as no evidence places Australian Aboriginal in H. erectus.

Instead, every scientist of the present who is familiar with the fossil record of Australia agrees that by virtue of all of their anatomy, as well as the time, place, and cultural associations where they are found, every fossil in Australia that is known of is unquestionably H. sapiens. If Ngandong, or a population like it, is indicated by similarities, is among the ancestors of WLH 50 as well as other fossil remains recovered from Australia, the evolutionary pathway that Kaifu et al., Anton and others describe in Australasia cannot be portrayed as “a somewhat different path from the lineage that led to H. sapiens” as this path demonstrably led to H. sapiens.

This phylogenetic interpretation is based on reticulation evidence. A taxonomic problem is created by this that is changed if H. erectus and H. sapiens are recognised as 2 successive species on a lineage without cladogenesis – in this case would be both legitimately and necessarily classified as H. sapiens (Wolpoff et al, 1994).

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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