A bit over 100 years ago anthropologists were searching for early man in SE Asia and specifically they were searching for the “missing link.” That common ancestor between ape and man! But what they were discovering is that the jungles of SE Asia were not conducive to fossil formation, so fossil finds were few and still are today. Then in 1891 Dutch paleoanthropologist and geologist Eugene Dubois stumbled on to something. On the island of Java he found the remains of what was first called Pithecanthropus erectus which would later be renamed Homo erectus and would commonly come to be known as Java Man. What Dubois found was a tooth, skullcap, and a thigh bone at a place called Trinil on the banks of the Solo River in East Java. Dubois was certain he’d found the “missing link”!! Dubois himself called the species Anthropopithecus erectus. Java Man was dated at between 1 mya and 700 kya.
But Dubois was not the only one looking for the “missing link.” Researchers in Europe and Africa were also looking for this elusive “missing link” between ape and man. Not long after Dubois unearthed Java Man startling news came from Europe. The “missing link” had been found in England!!
The year was 1912 and amateur anthropologist Charles Dawson claimed he’d indeed discovered the “missing link” after having found a section of a human-like skull in Pleistocene level gravel beds near Piltdown, East Sussex. Dawson immediately contacted Arthur Smith Woodward who was the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum in London. Together the two discovered even more artifacts at the Piltdown site which they believed all came from the same individual. Not only was a set of teeth found but also a jaw bone and skull fragments AND primitive tools. It was hailed as the discovery of the century!! They concluded that the remains dated back to 500 kya and when the discovery was announced at the Geological Society meeting the gathered audience were absolutely amazed! They gave the new find the name of Eoanthropus dawsoni meaning “Dawson’s dawn man.” But not everyone was convinced and there were even whispers of it all being some sort of elaborate hoax. Meanwhile, Dubois and his Piltdown Man were moved to the background and for the next several decades Piltdown Man was taught in universities across the planet as the oldest human ever found and as the “missing link” between man and ape.
In the meantime discoveries were beginning to be made in Africa and some of those discoveries challenged the Piltdown Man assertion. Then in 1953 a major bombshell shocked and rocked the world of paleoanthropology! It was announced that Piltdown Man was an ABSOLUTE HOAX!! In fact, what Dawson’s “dawn man” was really was an altered jawbone and some teeth from an orangutan combined with the skull of a fully developed small brained MODERN HUMAN BEING!!
Around the time Piltdown Man was finally exposed as a total hoax discoveries in Africa were setting the stage for what would come to be known as the Out of Africa (or Replacement) Theory and it is this theory that dominates the theory of human evolution today. It asserts that humans evolved in Africa and migrated out of Africa to the rest of the world. It hails Africa as the cradle of humanity, the birthplace of humankind. But, others are not so sure and the OOA continues to be a matter of some debate among some researchers even today.
One of those many places the OOA theory asserts early humans migrated to from Africa is Australia. The assumption has been that Australia was “settled” between 42-48 kya by Africans who migrated out of Africa and eventually into SE Asia. These people are postulated by OOA advocates to have come into Australia via land bridges and short sea crossings from SE Asia. But there are finds in Australia than run contrary to this claim! The Flinders Ranges Site and the Ganga Maya site in Australia dated to 46 kya and the Panaramitee site dates to 80 kya! But Australia is not alone…..
In China 47 Homo sapiens teeth have been found in a cave under a stalactite that is believed to have taken 80,000 years to grow and those teeth may be as old as 120 kya! Further, research is showing that Africans who never left Africa have DNA from some archaic ancestor unknown. Those who did migrate out of Africa have Neanderthal and/or Denisovan DNA but they do NOT have the DNA of the “archaic” ancestor found in Africans who did not migrate out of Africa! And those who did not migrate out of Africa don’t have Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA in their genes!!
There are some rips occurring in the fabric of the OOA theory as come researchers are coming to suspect all things human did NOT begin in Africa after all. Further, we now know that not only were there several migrations out of Africa but there were ALSO several migrations INTO AFRICA!! It now is beginning to appear that things were NOT so clear-cut as the OOA would have us believe!
Some have begun to wonder is the unidentified “archaic” DNA found in Africans might be aboriginal DNA (specifically AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL DNA)!! And if it is then that discredits the OOA theory and changes what we THOUGHT we knew about human evolution! Now isn’t that funny? Dubois and his discovery of Java Man was basically all but forgotten once the Piltdown hoax came about and suddenly the focus turned from SE Asia to Europe. Then after Piltdown was exposed as a hoax attention turned to Africa. And now, it seems, some of the focus is turning BACK to SE Asia! We are about to come full circle!
As we continue to perfect DNA techniques some of the mysteries that have endured for so long are being solved and brought to light and in many cases what we thought was, was NOT, and what we thought was not, WAS!! And I think this is a good thing because as I’ve said many times before real science follows the evidence WHEREVER it leads!!!
The Panaramitee site is in the Panaramitee Hills in South Australia. It consists of prehistoric rock art. It is sometimes referred to as “The Land Where Time Began.” This rock art is believed to be from the Pleistocene age (2.5 mya to 11.7 kya) which was an era of repeated glaciations and interglacials. It includes the last ice age (some call it the Great Ice Age).
Below is a map showing the various sites where the Panaramitee style of rock art is found in Australia:
The Flinder’s Ranges Sites are located in the Flinder’s Ranges which are the largest mountain range in South Australia. Cave paintings, rock art, and other artifacts indicate humans have lived in this area for tens of thousands of years. The Warratyi rock shelter dates back to 49 kya. This rock shelter is in the Flinder’s Ranges and it is a prehistoric rock shelter. Between 2011-2014 over 4300 artifacts were found at this site. Many animals bones were found and it’s believed that the people who lived under the shelter brought them to this site to be cooked and eaten. Stone tools and bone needles were also found including the oldest bone needle found to date in Australia. Also found were what appear to be the remains of nets which may have been used to capture Wallabies. The earliest human occupation here is dated at 49 kya. The Flinder’s Ranges look a bit like the Southwestern US, New Mexico in fact.
At the Ganga Maya Cave site cave digs have unearthed artifacts dating back to 45 kya. This site is in Western Australia in the Pilbara region. It is believed this site was occupied by humans continuously through the last ice age until around 1700 years ago! Other significant sites in Australia include Devil’s Lair which is a limestone cave site in Western Australia dated between 41-46 kya along with the Lake Mungo site which is a dry lake basin in western New South Wales, Australia dated at about 43 kyr.
Something significant in all this is that the oldest bone tools from SE Asia thus far date back to 11 kya. But there is evidence that bone tools were being manufactured and used in the north of South Australia 38 kya and in Western Australia around 26 kya.
Recently a man in Australia stumbled across the oldest known evidence of Aboriginal settlement in the Warratyi area which shows aboriginal people were living in this area 49 kya which is about 10,000 years earlier than thought. What is happening in Australia is the new discoveries are being made setting back the arrival of humans earlier and earlier than we thought! And then there is MUNGO MAN and MUNGO LADY!!
The typical M.O. has been applied to finds that are “out of place” in Australia and elsewhere in the Pacific. We’ll be taking a look at some of these out of place finds in the future. One of interest is that H. erectus may well have been existing in Australia up until around 10 kya! That’s pretty recent in geologic time!
I don’t think humans began anywhere. They began everywhere. That’s why I tend to agree with the Multi-regional Theory instead of the OOA theory. Australia just might hold some big keys to human evolution and/or interbreeding that are significant enough to dramatically change our perceptions of where we came from. We’ll be taking a closer look at Australia and some of the other lands in the South Pacific too.