The Emergence of Modern Humans in Asia and Australia

The young woman had been cremated earlier that morning, the details hidden from the men by the secret women's ritual. As the cremation was being conducted, some of the men sat around the campfire, close to the lake margin, and discussed the hunting and fishing of the previous day. They were well away from the secret women's business. Some men were showing the children how to make stone tools, knapping away flakes from large stone cores. The smell of cooking fish and kangaroo meat started to filter among the group. Added to the fire were large quantities of freshwater mussels, and a few emu eggs were positioned close by, ready to be heated at the last moment.

The next day, the men went out hunting, while most of the women returned to the cremation site. Some of the younger women stayed behind in the camp to look after the children. The remains of the young woman were collected and her bones smashed into hundreds of pieces. The original cremation pit was dug through and the bones of the young woman interred. The ash from the cremation was then used to help fill the shallow pit. More women's business was performed before the women returned to the campsite late that night.

The discovery in 1968 of the "Mungo Lady" (specimen LM 1) and her excavation in 1969 are significant events in Australian and world prehistory. The remains of this individual pushed back the colonization of Australia to at least 30,000 years ago, which was at that time almost twice as old as previously thought. Of equal significance are the complex cultural practices, clearly demonstrated by the fact that she was cremated. The burial site still represents the earliest evidence of cremation anywhere in the world. Australia is now claimed to have been colonized at least 60,000 years ago (Thorne et al., 1999), though this claim has recently been challenged. But whether the date was 60,000 or closer to 40,000, as Bowler et al. (2003) now claim, it was a long, long time ago. Yet what is clear is that these were modern people, not only in appearance but also in behavior.

In the 1930s, an American anthropologist, Joseph Birdsell, traveled around Australia measuring Aboriginal people. He found that in the rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands, in far north Queensland, people are very short and have crisply curled, sometimes "woolly" hair. In the southeast, people are comparatively light-skinned and bulkily built, and the men tend to be hairy and to go bald early. In the tropical north (outside the rainforests), people are very dark and slenderly built. Instead of simply noting these variations and ascribing them to local adaptations, as we would today, Birdsell was convinced that three distinct races, which came in at different times and, in part, replaced each other, populated Australia. First, he argued, came the short people, who survive today in purest form in the Atherton rainforests; he called them Barrineans, after Lake Barrine, near Atherton. Next came the light-skinned people, whom he called the Murrayians because they survived in purest form along the River Murray. Finally came the dark, lanky people; he called them Carpentarians, from the Gulf of Carpentaria. This is Birdsell's Trihybrid hypothesis (Birdsell, 1949, 1967).

Birdsell's model enjoyed some popularity up until the 1960s, but the work of Andrew Abbie, a zoologist from Adelaide, was gradually undermining it. Abbie did not deny the existence of physical differences from place to place, but for him the essential unity of the Australian Aboriginal physique, when compared to any other human group whatever, spoke eloquently of a single origin (Abbie, 1968, 1976).

The modern version of the Birdsell model is Alan Thorne's Dihybrid hypothesis, which dates from the early 1970s and is based not on living people but on fossils. Thorne argued that the original human colonization of Australia had two distinct migration episodes, one coming from China and the other from Indonesia (Thorne, 1984). The so-called "gracile populations" (as represented by many of the Willandra Lakes fossils) are said to have originated from present-day China, while the later "robust populations" (as represented by fossils from Kow Swamp and Coobool Creek), he suggested, originated from present-day Indonesia (Thorne, 1984; Wolpoff et al., 1984). This scheme, of course, is tied to the Multiregional hypothesis, which argues for independent evolution of human groups in different regions of the world through time. It suggests that there is a continuation of anatomical form from Homo erectus of Java through to the first Australians (Wolpoff et al., 1984; Thorne & Wolpoff, 1981, 1992; Thorne, 2000).

The alternative hypothesis is that indigenous Australians are represented by one migration occurring anywhere from about 45,000 to 70,000 years ago, with little significant biological input after this initial colonization. This scheme is tied to the "Out of Africa" hypothesis: There was a recent origin of modern humans from Africa, followed by a rapid biological dispersion throughout Europe and Asia, including Australia. These modern populations quickly replaced the original populations in Europe and Asia without any significant inbreeding. The demise of the more "archaic" Old World human populations was based on either a prehistoric genocide (which we consider to be unlikely) or, far more probable, their simply succumbing to competition for the available resources from recently arrived modern humans — although extinction is a perfectly natural biological event, and it is possible that pre-sapiens species could simply have become extinct before H. sapiens arrived (Stringer, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1998, 1999; Stringer & Andrews, 1988; Groves, 1989a, 1989b, 1994; Howells, 1992; Stringer & McKie, 1997; partly Adcock et al., 2001).

A major problem with previous interpretations of the Australian pale-oanthropological record has been the focus on anatomical features, with little attempt to identify the significance of the features being discussed (the few exceptions being Wright, 1976; P. Brown, 1981; Groves, 1989a, 1989b; Habgood, 1989). For example, Macintosh and Larnach (1972, 1976), Thorne (1976), Wolpoff et al. (1984), and Thorne and Wolpoff (1981) base much of their case on an implied similarity of the upper face (particularly the supraorbital and frontal regions), arguing for a biological continuity between the Australian "robust" and the Indonesian H. erectus populations. Other features, such as "thick" cranial bones, flattened frontals, and enlarged dental complexes, have also been used. Are these features, however, unique to Pleistocene Southeast Asian and Australian populations? Indeed, what is the functional, developmental, and phylogenetic significance of these features anyway?

Before attempting to answer these important questions, we must first briefly describe these two "types," the prehistoric "gracile" and the "robust" Australians.

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