Mungo Man older than thought


Fresh analysis of the skeletal remains found at Lake Mungo in NSW 25 years ago indicate he may be up to 68,000 years old - making him 28,000 years older than earlier scientific estimates.

The revised dating of the remains by scientists at the Australian National University rewrites the history of Australia's occupation and has profound implications for worldwide debate over the origins of modern man.

Cross-matching a range of recent dating tests puts the minimum date of the burial of the remains at 56,000 to 68,000 years ago. The research, to be published today in the Journal of Human Evolution, came up with almost identical dates.

But the researchers add that the location of the Mungo skeleton, deep in Australia's south-east, suggests Homo sapiens arrived in the north-east much earlier, taking time to migrate inland and adapt to desert conditions before travelling down the continent.

The previous accepted estimate was that humans had roamed the country for 40,000 to 60,000 years.

The redating was carried out using three different methods - uranium series, electron spin resonance and optically stimulated luminescence. The researchers say they date the remains at 62,000 years, plus or minus 6000 years.

The findings strengthen the theory that two forms of man - the delicate people first and the robust people later - came to the outer reaches of the continent from two different parts of Asia tens of thousands of years ago.

These groups, along with others that came later, are then said to have merged to form modern Aborigines and Melanesians.

"The research has important implications for the global debate over the development of modern human variation, the beginning of human sea travel and the settlement by the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians of the semi-arid areas of the continent," said archaeologist Dr Alan Thorne.

The finding is certain to spark renewed debate between the multi-regionalists, who believe different people migrated from different parts of Asia, and those who support the "out of Africa" model that dates all human origin to Africa.

The discovery began more than a quarter of a century ago, when on 26 February 1974, the shifting sands of a lunette around Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area revealed an eroding gravesite.

It was a human skeleton - known as Lake Mungo 3 - that had been covered in red ochre during a burial ritual. The hands were interlocked and positioned over the penis.

Five years earlier the cremated remains of a female skeleton, known by local Aborigines as Mungo Lady, were found in the same area.

Using carbon-dating, a technique only reliable to around 40,000 years old, the skeleton was first estimated at 28,000 to 32,000 years old.

The figures were later revised upwards to about 40,000 years old.

Dr Thorne said the new research also provided new minimum ages for human cremation and the use of ochre in burials. The burial of Mungo Man involved the spreading of red ochre over the body during the burial ceremony. This is the earliest known use of pigment for artistic, philosophical or religious purposes.


Thorne, Alan (1999). Australia's Oldest Human Remains: Age of the Lake Mungo 3 Skeleton. Journal of Human Evolution 36: 591-612.

9 Jan 2001: Newswire report on the results of Thorne's DNA analysis of Mungo Man.
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