Australian Aboriginal history (was Re: [asa] The ASA and the Soft Sciences (ASA focus for the future- dreaming))

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Thu Jan 08 2009 - 05:40:59 EST

Dick Fischer wrote:
> Off the subject. From where is it commonly believed that Aboriginals
> descended? I don't believe they were part of the out of Africa group.
> If that is too sensitive, don't bother, but do you know if any studies
> have been done or what the current train of thought might be?

Hi Dick,

Interesting area of inquiry - I'll forbear from the temptation to waffle on at length!

In almost any study of origins of Australian Aboriginals, the major anthropological specimen of interest is Mungo Man from Lake Mungo in South Australia. Via various dating techniques this chappy has been reliably dated to about 60k years ago, giving us a reliable first date for Aboriginal settlement.

In 2001 DNA was extracted from these remains and it was reported by Adcock et al ("Mitochondrial DNA sequences in ancient Australians: Implications for modern human origins", PNAS January 16, 2001 vol. 98 no. 2 537-542, that analysis of same brings the "out of Africa" hypothesis into question. The claim here was that Mungo Man represents a major branching divergence not represented in living humans - so divergent, in fact, as to render the "out of Africa" hypothesis untenable.

Perhaps needless to say, this analysis has itself been seriously challenged. The arguments here are complex they boil down to this; the sole basis of the Adcock et al claim is a single unique gene in Mungo Man. This gene can, however, be explained within the confines of the "out of Africa" hypothesis whilst a cluster of other evidence from anatomical, mitochondrial and nuclear DNA evidence supports the "out of Africa" hypothesis. The bottom line seems to be that the Adcock et al study contains sufficient inadiquacies, and the other data carries sufficient weight, that the Adcock et al challenge to the "out of Africa" hypothesis is rendered invalid.

For what it's worth, the study of Aboriginal prehistory is not a particularly sensitive area of inquiry. It's the history since white settlement/invasion in 1788 that carries the social and political implications and is, consequently, very ideologically charged. But discussing the prehistorical is pretty neutral - largely the debates are driven by disagreements over scientific methods and findings and are no more heated than would be the case for (say) the human prehistory of Europe.

If you're very interested in knowing more, a good reference on this is Josephine Flood, Archeology of the Dreamtime: The story of prehistoric Australia and its people, Marleston, South Australia: JB Publishing, 2004 - from which, needless to say, I lifted most of the above. Pages 7 and 8 discuss the relevant studies on the debate over the "out of Africa" thesis. You can either try to chase up a copy of the book (if you want a broad overview of Australian pre-history), or - if you would simply like to see the material relevant to the "out of Africa" thesis - contact me off-list and I'd be happy to scan and e-mail the two relevant pages (and, no, it's not a copyright infringement to do so!).


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Received on Thu Jan 8 05:41:41 2009

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