The Mungo Man fossil Which Challenged Out of Africa theory
Mungo Man is the name given to the remains of the oldest anatomically modern human found in Australia to date and one of the oldest Homo sapien skeletons outside of Africa. Initially dated at 60,000-years-old and with DNA from an extinct lineage that does not trace back to Africa’s ‘mitochondrial Eve’, the discovery of Mungo Man caused waves throughout the world and challenged the well-known Out of Africa theory. Now, after 40 years, Mungo Man may finally be heading home to be returned to his burial place in Lake Mungo National Park.
Aboriginal elders made a formal request to be given the remains on the discovery’s 40 th anniversary on 26 th February. "I'm hoping that we will have a decision by the 40th year anniversary,” said geologist Jim Bowler, who first discovered Mungo Man. “Forty years he has been in the custody of science at the national university, that's time enough, time to come home”.
Mungo Man was discovered by Jim Bowler on 26 February 1974 when shifting sand dunes exposed his remains. He was found near Lake Mungo, one of several dry lakes in south-western New South Wales. The body was sprinkled with red ochre, in the earliest known example of such a sophisticated and artistic burial practice. This aspect of the discovery has been particularly significant to indigenous Australians, since it indicates that certain cultural traditions have existed on the Australian continent for much longer than previously thought.
Dating the Mungo remains however would prove to be a long and controversial task. From his studies of the lake's geology, Jim knew that Mungo Man had to be at least 30,000 years old, but dating undertaken in the late 90’s, which utilised data from uranium-thorium dating, electron spin resonance dating and optically stimulated luminescence, produced estimates of up to 62,000 years – that’s 40,000 earlier than when Australia’s first humans were thought to have arrived on the continent.
The findings were ‘uncomfortable’ because they conflicted with the predominant Out of Africa theory which suggests that modern humans evolved in Africa, and then went on to populate the rest of the world, reaching Australia 50,000 years ago.
Adding to the controversy was another study conducted by Australian National University graduate student Greg Adcock and colleagues, who analysed the mitochondrial DNA from bone fragments and found that Mungo Man had a genetic lineage that is both older and distinct from the common ancestor that originated in Africa in the female line of all living humans, the so-called "Mitochondrial Eve". The study authors proposed that their results support the multiregional hypothesis, which holds that traits of modern humans evolved in several places around the world, and that gene flow created the genetic uniformity seen today, not a recent migration of a single population from Africa.
However, in 2003, the debate was apparently ‘settled’ when a further study, published in the journal Nature, revealed that Mungo Man dated back to a much more comfortable 40,000 years. It was also claimed that the DNA findings did not conflict with the Out of Africa hypothesis because Mungo Man may simply have descended from a different maternal line in Africa which later became extinct. All was well again in the academic world and many breathed a sigh of relief that they could continue to hold onto their belief in the Out of Africa model.
Mungo Man may not have given up all his answers, but Jim is hoping he will now be returned to his original resting place. "A thousand generations later we have the extraordinary privilege of listening to the messages of that man, of learning who he was and taking his remains back to his shores and back to the descendants of his people," said Jim. “The messages from the ancient Mungo people challenge us to come to terms with the history and dynamics of this strange land, especially with the rights and richness of their descendants.
Featured image: The remains of Mungo Man. Photo credit: Wikimedia