This page presents the latest scientific theories on the evolution of all human beings, but with particular reference to theories on the evolution of Aboriginal people. It discusses and highlights current discoveries, controversies and challenges in the theories to show that this is a live topic - even an evolving topic :-). And it highlights previous errors in the science. Partly it uses these errors to demonstrate the way science works, in that it is (eventually) self-correcting as theories are tested by new observations and those which are contradicted by observed facts are discarded. However, the main reason these errors are discussed is to show how they were wrongly used to justify European cultural superiority. These incorrect theories are important as they were used to justify policies like Terra Nullius and the Stolen Generations, and they have left a legacy of racism which Aboriginal people still have to struggle with today.
It would be wrong to argue that these old discarded scientific theories were the cause of the attitudes of Wadjela - rather these discredited theories reflected the attitudes of Wadjela society of the day. It is evident that scientists of any era are people who are very much part of their society and, unwittingly perhaps, take on its attitudes. Sometimes science is not an impartial academic exercise but reflects and supports the biases and prejudices of the dominant society of the day. However, it is also important to recognize other drivers of racist theories, such as the economic benefit which can be obtained by exploiting another people.
- The total Denisovan human remains found so far consists only of part of a little finger bone, a lower jawbone and a few teeth. Despite this, scientists in September 2019 have used DNA to reconstruct their appearance, and the reference shows a portrait of a young Denisovan woman. The technique allows us to work out the way the bones differed but not by how much, and it is based on so many assumptions it can at best only paint a partial picture.
- Another extinct human species has been found, as reported in April 2019. The species is to be called Homo luzonensis after the island of Luzon in the Philippines where it was discovered. This find shows that South East Asia was important in the evolution of hominins. Given that Luzon was only ever accessible by sea it shows that Homo luzonensis was able to cross seas, which means it is possible that Australia too could also have been home to ancient people such as these. It is also possible that this long lost relative may be the previously unknown human species who contributed to the Aboriginal genome (see below).
The scientific dating evidence for when people first arrived in Australia is contradictory, with a discrepancy between DNA evidence saying Aboriginal people arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago and the archaeological evidence from Madjedbebe rock shelter (see below) near Kakadu of Aboriginal people being there 65,000 years ago. Aboriginal people believe they have been here since the beginning, as told by stories of the Nyitting (Dreaming or Cold Time). There is controversial evidence (burnt stones and an accumulation of sea shells surrounded by cemented sand) of people living 120,000 years ago in South-West Victoria at a place known as Moyjil (Point Ritchie) located within coastal dune sediments in the city of Warrnambool, which if the result of activity by Homo sapiens (our species) would cause problems for the conventional dating of the origins of modern humans; as according to the accepted theory, the most significant exodus of Homo sapiens out of Africa happened about 70,000 years ago and reached Australia 65,000 years ago. But there were many times before then when people had spread out of Africa, for example some Homo erectus people left Africa around 1.9 million years ago. A hominin Meganthropus D, probably a sub species of Homo erectus, reached Java between 1.4 and 0.9 million years ago, and possibly Australia as well. (Meganthropus D is the only specimen of Meganthropus currently to be dated). Later arrivals interbred with earlier populations, and all modern humans have other hominin species to thank for part of their DNA.
Madjedbebe rock shelter archaeological evidence v. DNA evidenceEdit
The archaeological dig at Madjedbebe rock shelter near Kakadu National Park in 2017 indicated humans reached Australia at least 65,000 years ago. This does not mean Aboriginal people arrived in Australia 65,000 years ago, but that they were here at least 65,000 years ago. However DNA evidence from 2016 says that Aboriginal people reached Australia 50,000 years ago:
|“||Aboriginal Australians descended from a single population that arrived 50,000 years ago from New Guinea, when it was joined to Australia||”|
50,000 years ago Australia was joined to New Guinea and Tasmania as part of the old continent of Sahul. The DNA evidence goes on to assert that this new population spread rapidly. Within 2,000 years people had circled the east and west coasts before meeting somewhere in South Australia and that basic pattern has held for 50,000 years until settlement times. N.B. there is an important difference between how Aboriginal people define themselves based on culture, and how Wadjela scientists define people based nowadays on DNA. Also note that because the scientific method is an ongoing process its conclusions on any subject are never the final word - otherwise it is not science!
The reports on the Madjedbebe rock shelter excavations stressed the cultural similarity between the people there 65,000 years ago and today:
|“||It suggests there is a very, very deep continuity and connection between the people living in Kakadu today and probably those living there 65,000 years ago||”|
|“||throughout the deposit, even at the lowest layers, archaeologists found ochre crayons: a powerful expression of artistic endeavour and cultural achievement||”|
Since Aboriginal people define aboriginality on the basis of culture, it is clear the people at Madjedbebe rock shelter 65,000 years BP (Before Present) were Aboriginal, much earlier than the 50,000 years BP date from DNA evidence.
Oldest known polished koitj found in KimberleyEdit
The scientific name for our species is Homo sapiens, the only surviving species of human. The 2016 DNA analysis found that en route to Australia, ancestral Aboriginal people encountered and interbred with other human species, including a previously unknown human species who has now been shown to have contributed around 4% to the Indigenous Australian genome (possibly this unknown species of human could also have been indigenous to Australia as well as being encountered en route). These other species of humans, like the Denisovans (who also contributed about 3% to 5% to the Indigenous Australian genome) and Neanderthals (also represented in the Aboriginal genome), are now known to have been more sophisticated than mere brutes as was once assumed by Wadjela science (see below). These percentage figures are not percentages of the complete human genome (after all humans differ from our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, in only 2.7% of their genome), but are percentages of that part (2.7%?) of the human genome which makes Homo sapiens distinct. The analysis suggests the unknown DNA is unlikely to come from Neanderthals or Denisovans, but from a third extinct hominid, previously unknown to archaeologists.
The genetic study also resolves the apparent discrepancy between the genetic findings that Aboriginal people have been in Australia for 50,000 years and that the languages spoken by these populations are only around 4,000 years old - see Gnullar Karla Mia - Our Campfires (Language groups). The genetic study found a 4,000 year old but tiny genetic signature, presumably of a few new people who arrived with a new language and from the timing probably also with the dwert, both of which which were gratefully adopted by the existing population.
The standard scientific story is that Homo sapiens - people like us - evolved in what is now Africa 315,000 years ago, before spreading out over the rest of the World, and this had happened before with our predecessors such as Homo erectus (or alternatively Homo erectus evolved in Asia from an earlier hominin from Africa - a scientific consensus has not been reached on this issue). Homo erectus became extinct 140,000 years ago, although the hobbit from Flores, which may have evolved from Homo erectus, only became extinct 50,000 years ago. Note that dates when ancient hominins such as Homo erectus became extinct should be treated with caution as they rely on lack of evidence to date an event. A recent report says that Homo erectus may have gone extinct because of laziness and lack of planning - some people are still thinking of other human species as not as good as good old Homo sapiens!
There is actually some evidence of an earlier migration of early Homo sapiens out of Africa some 219,000 years ago, this is from the DNA extracted from a 124,000 year old Neanderthal bone found in Germany showing evidence of sex 219,000 years ago between the Neanderthal's ancestors and these early Homo sapiens.
Changing scientific views on the origins and capabilities of Aboriginal peopleEdit
An article "A story of rupture and resilience: When did Australia's human history begin?" discusses the history of the changing scientific stories and the attitudes of Aboriginal people today to these views. The article states: "in the 1950s, it was widely believed [by Wadjela] that the first Australians had arrived on this continent only a few thousand years earlier. They were regarded as "primitive" — a fossilised stage in human evolution — but not necessarily ancient." This is the same way of erroneous thinking as that e.g. Neanderthal people were brutes. The authors of the article warn: "We need to be careful not to echo the language of past cultural evolutionists, who believed ... that Aboriginal people were an unchanging people, living in an unchanging environment". Aboriginal people have always had to adapt to change and they have done this successfully for at least 65,000 years.
Mungo man and woman from 40,000 years agoEdit
The discovery which exploded the idea of Aboriginal people being relative recent arrivals in Australia was the discovery in 1969 at Lake Mungo in NSW of the remains of Mungo woman (LM1). Mungo man (LM3) was discovered 500m away from the site of Mungo woman's burial in 1974. Lake Mungo is nowadays a dry lake, but during the last ice age it was a freshwater lake teeming with life and providing plenty of resources for people to use. This was the time when Mungo woman and man would have been at the lake. During the last glacial maximum which was 26,500 years ago the water level in the lake fell, and it became a salt lake. This made the soil alkaline, which helped to preserve the remains left behind. Initially Mungo woman was thought to be 20,000 - 26,000 years old from radiocarbon dating, but she is now thought to be around 40,000 years old. Mungo man has also been dated to around 40,000 years ago.
Mungo woman and man are the same human species as modern people, i.e. Homo sapiens. Mungo woman had been cremated, and her remains then covered in red ochre. She is the earliest evidence of human cremation yet discovered. Mungo man had not been cremated, instead he had been laid out in great ceremony on his back, with knees bent and hands positioned at the groin with the fingers interlocked. Next to the body were the remains of a fire. The body had been sprinkled with red ochre, the earliest known example of such a sophisticated and artistic burial practice. Mungo man and woman are the oldest Homo sapiens remains found in Australia, as there have been no human remains found at earlier sites. These burials of Aboriginal people are the earliest significant and sophisticated cultural practices known in human history.
There are Aboriginal stories of "Indigenous Apes", the Yahoo or Yowie, which could be about earlier hominins in Australia. In November 1876 the Australian Town and Country Journal asked readers:
|“||Who has not heard, from the earliest settlement of the colony, the blacks speaking of some unearthly animal or inhuman creature, ... namely the Yahoo-Devil Devil, or hairy man of the wood ... [a young wadjela woman] discovered the appearance to be unsightly and inhuman, bearing in every way the shape of a man with a big red face, hands and legs covered over with long, shaggy hair ... "||”|
The Noongar term is 'woodadji' for devil men or little hairy men of the bush.
The Hairypeople are a major part of the 2016 Australian television drama program Cleverman.
Baob tree migrationEdit
There is an interesting similarity in the story of the Australian and African baobab trees, and that of humans. The Australian baob tree Adansonia gregorii (note the Australian usage "baob") is very closely related to the African baobab tree Adansonia digitata, and one scientist has suggested that the African trees were brought to Australia 72,000 years ago by humans. These trees are useful and treasured by their community, even mourned when they die, so perhaps seedlings were taken as a link to the original home of the wanderers. In support of this idea the range of the Australian baob is the same as the range of the Wandjina rock art in the Kimberley, and the baob is not present at other locations on the North-West Australian coast where it would readily grow and where oceanic dispersal would be expected to have delivered seeds, which is an argument against the alternative hypothesis that the seeds were carried to Australia on ocean currents. On the other hand, if the baobab tree was brought by humans, why aren't there other examples of these trees planted along the route these people took? A key point therefore is actually the restricted range of the Australian baobab tree. Perhaps, just a few trees made it as seeds across the ocean, and then their seeds were dispersed by the people who made the Wandjina rock art.
- The book "Nyoongar Boodja : Koomba Bardip Kooratan" or "Nyoongar Land : Long Story Short" and associated film "Synergies : Walking Together - Belonging to Country" or "Djena Koorliny Danjoo Boodjar-ang", directed by Glen Stasiuk and featuring Dr Noel Nannup.
- Suzannah Lyons. "Genetic data allows scientists to reconstruct what a Denisovan may have looked like for the first time". ABC Science. 19 September 2019. Retrieved 21 September 2019
- Michael Le Page. "First glimpse of what a Denisovan could have looked like". New Scientist. No 3249, p 16. 28 September 2019
- Paul Rincon. "New human species found in Philippines". BBC News. 10 April 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2019
- Anna Salleh. "Early human fossil remains found in Philippines cave may herald new species — Homo luzonensis". ABC News. 11 April 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2019
- "Moyjil - Point Ritchie". Moyjil - Point Ritchie. Retrieved 20 March 2020
- Ruby Prosser-Scully. "120,000-year-old Australians". New Scientist. 23 March 2019. No 3222. p 10
- Sian Johnson. "Volcanoes in Victoria reveal fresh evidence of eruptions 37,000 years ago". ABC South West Vic. 26 February 2020. Retrieved 20 March 2020
- Genelle Weule, Felicity James. "Indigenous rock shelter in Top End pushes Australia's human history back to 65,000 years". ABC News. 20 July 2017. Retrieved 26 July 2017
- Anna-Sapfo Malaspinas, Michael C. Westaway, et al. (2016) "A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia". Nature. Vol 538, pages 207–214. 3 October 2016. Retrieved 7 September 2018
- Greg Dunlop. "DNA provides window into early Aboriginal history". BBC News. 9 March 2017. Retrieved 3 April 2018
- Hannah Devlin. "Indigenous Australians most ancient civilisation on Earth, DNA study confirms". The Guardian. Published 21 September 2016. Retrieved 6 August 2018
- Billy Griffiths, Lynette Russell and Richard Roberts. "A story of rupture and resilience: When did Australia's human history begin?". ABC News. Published 16 November 2017. Retrieved 8 August 2018
- "World's oldest polished axe". News. World Archaeology Magazine. Vol 7 (6). Issue 78. August/September 2016. p 6
- Elizabeth Landau. "Oldest human DNA found in Spain". CNN. 10 December 2013. Retrieved 20 April 2019. "About 3% to 5% of the DNA of people from Melanesia (islands in the south-west Pacific Ocean), Australia and New Guinea as well as aboriginal people from the Philippines comes from the Denisovans."
- Ewen Callaway. "Neanderthals had outsize effect on human biology". Nature. Vol 523. Iss 7562. 29 July 2015. Retrieved 20 April 2019
- "Neanderthals were no brutes – research reveals they may have been precision workers". The Conversation. 27 September 2018. Retrieved 20 April 2019
- Genelle Weule. "Neanderthal skeleton unearthed at 'flower burial' site in Iraq holds clues about ancient death rites". ABC News. 19 February 2020. Retrieved 19 February 2020
- "Aboriginal Australians, Pacific Islanders carry DNA of unknown human species, research analysis suggests". ABC News. Published 26 October 2016. Retrieved 8 August 2018
- Ewen Callaway. "First Aboriginal genome sequenced". Nature. Published 22 September 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2018
- Jon Healy. "Homo erectus died out due to lack of planning, lazy gathering strategies: ANU research". ABC News. Published 10 August 2018. Retrieved 10 August 2018
- Aylin Woodward. "Our forgotten fling with Neanderthals". New Scientist. 8 July 2017. Iss 3133 p. 8. Similar online at "We may have mated with Neanderthals more than 219,000 years ago". Retrieved 6 September 2018
- "Earliest modern human found outside Africa". BBC News. 10 July 2019. Retrieved 10 July 2019
- "Lake Mungo 1" University of New England personal website for Peter Brown. Archived 21 February 2006. Retrieved 16 April 2019
- Bowler JM, Johnston H, Olley JM, Prescott JR, Roberts RG, Shawcross W, Spooner NA (2003). "New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia". Nature. Vol 421. Iss 6925. pp 837–40. doi:10.1038/nature01383. PMID 12594511
- Olleya JM, Roberts RG, Yoshida H, Bowler JM (2006). "Single-grain optical dating of grave-infill associated with human burials at Lake Mungo, Australia". Quaternary Science Reviews. Vol 25. Iss 19–20. pp 2469–2474. Bibcode:2006QSRv...25.2469O. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2005.07.022
- "Milburn Creek". Australian Town and Country Journal. p 11. 18 November 1876. Retrieved 19 April 2019
- Bernard Rooney (2011). "The Nyoongar Legacy". Batchelor Press. ISBN 978 174131 232 4
- Ben Collins. "Curious Kimberley: Scientists disagree how boab trees got to Australia from Africa and Madagascar". ABC News. Published 7 August 2018. Retrieved 7 August 2018
- "The Baobab – An Ark of Mankind?". African Aromatics. Retrieved 7 August 2018
- "Baobab trees have more than 300 uses but they’re dying in Africa". The Conversation. June 14 2018. Retrieved 7 August 2018
- Francesca Robertson, Noel Nannup, Glen Stasiuk, Stephen Hopper. "Nyoongar Boodjar : Koomba Bardip Kooratan" or "Nyoongar Land : Long Story Short". Pub Batchelor Institute. 2017. ISBN 978-1-74131-540-0