The Mark of Ancient Java Is on None of Them

By Westaway, Michael C.; Groves, Colin P. | Archaeology in Oceania, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Mark of Ancient Java Is on None of Them


Westaway, Michael C., Groves, Colin P., Archaeology in Oceania


Since the initial palaeoanthropological research of Weidenreich (1943, 1945 and 1946), there has been much emphasis on the role of Homo erectus from Indonesia (or Sunda) in the peopling of Ancient Australia (or Sahul). In a 1965 summary of the known Australasian human fossil series of the time, which included Talgai, Mossgiel, Cohuna, Keilor and Aitape, Macintosh noted:

   The mark of ancient Java is on all of them, but that can
   be seen in modern Aboriginal crania too. All show
   individual or combined features which can be spoken of
   as primitive: and a morphological sequence can be
   detected ranging from Talgai, at the more primitive
   extreme, through Mossgiel (tentatively), Cohuna.
   Tartanga, and finally the most modern-looking Keilor.
   (Macintosh 1965: 59)

He observed that Cohuna, Talgai and Mossgiel had certain morphological similarities that set them apart from Keilor. The results of his initial study indicated that there was indeed a link between the Australian fossil record and fossil forms from Java (Macintosh 1967). Later with his colleague Larnach (Larnach and Macintosh 1974, Macintosh and Larnach 1976:118) he was to withdraw his claim of a close phylogenetic link between Homo erectus in Java and the Aboriginal Australians. Following a study of the Ngandong crania, Macintosh and Larnach (1974, 1976) argued that the great morphological differences of Homo erectus compared to modern Aboriginal crania, and the presence of unique features in the erectines, made it extremely unlikely that Ngandong was ancestral to Australians. It would seem however, that the seed was sown.

The quest was to be taken up enthusiastically by Macintosh's then PhD student Alan Thorne in the late 1960s. Thorne was to dramatically increase the fossil human sample in Australia; his important excavations at Kow Swamp increased the number from 5 (Talgai, Cohuna, Keilor, Lake Nitchie and Mossgiel) to 27. For the first time, there was a significant series of fossil remains from a single locality, and many of these retained a very robust cranial morphology. In March 1969 Jim Bowler, John Mulvaney, Rhys Jones, and Harry Allan from the ANU were to excavate the remains of a young female (WLH 1, known as Mungo Lady) from the ancient shores of Lake Mungo on the property of Joulni; the morphology of these remains was quite distinct from the more robust crania recovered from Kow Swamp. Further gracile remains, this time of a male (WLH 3) were recovered from a location only 400 m north of the Mungo Lady site. The fossils at Lake Mungo appeared to provide quite a different morphology from that at Kow Swamp, more comparable to the 'modern-looking' Keilor skull, and this disparity generated the Di-hybrid model, which argued that two distinct populations were responsible for the colonisation of Australia (Thorne, 1976). Unlike Birdsell's controversial Tri-hybrid model, Thorne's model was able to draw upon an extensive series of fossil human remains, a series that Thorne had himself largely recovered and painstakingly reconstructed.

A large amount of research since Thorne's initial work has illustrated that the variation within Sahul has no close biological link with the archaic populations from Sunda and are representative of phenotypic variation within a single population. For example Habgood (1991), following Wolpoff (1980), has noted that the variation in Pleistocene crania can be explained within a single homogenous population. He notes that two of the main Australian late Pleistocene samples (Kow Swamp and Coobool Creek) contain specimens representing both ends of the morphological spectrum, and numerous intermediates. Habgood (1985 and 1986) further demonstrated through multivariate analysis that the robust and gracile groups within the broader Australian Pleistocene sequences are more similar to each other than to specimens from other geographic regions.

A number of publications still contend that Pleistocene Australians are, at least in part, derived from ancient Javan Homo erectus populations, the most significant recent publications being those of Hawks et al. …

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