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Head Modification Explains the Origin of the First Australians


The Nacurie 1 cranium provides evidence that mothers intentionally modified the shape of their infants’ heads in the Murray River region of south-eastern Australia during the terminal Pleistocene. Photo: Peter Brown

By Peter Brown

Evidence of head shape modification among Pleistocene Australians helps refute claims of an evolutionary connection with Indonesian Homo erectus.

Peter Brown holds the Chair of Palaeoanthropology at the University of New England, Armidale, NSW.

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For more than a century there has been a protracted debate over the origins of Australia’s first human inhabitants and what was their biological and cultural relationship with earlier populations in the Asian region. This discussion has also been relevant to the broader debate concerning the evolution and dispersion of humans globally, including the relationship between Neandertals and modern humans in Europe.

Ideally, tests of these models can be provided by comparing genetic and cultural information from past and present populations. However, there is rarely adequate data to provide certainty, and lengthy disputes over the interpretation of details are common. It also does not help that there are more palaeoanthropologists than there are data worth interpreting.

Australian researchers have been particularly interested in finding evidence of the initial movement of people from the Sunda Shelf, through the Indonesian archipelago and into greater Australia during the late Pleistocene. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans had become established over a large part of Australia at least 40,000 years ago, with slightly younger dates for modern human occupation from Niah Cave in Borneo, Timor, New Britain and New Ireland.

Current archaeological and fossil skeletal evidence indicates that earlier bipeds Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis were able to...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.