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Australia may need to revise its history books after the mysterious skull of a white man found in New South Wales was found to date back to the 1600s, long before the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1770, who is believed to have been the first European to reach the East Coast of the continent.
Questions have already been raised about who first discovered Australia after a recent report about East African coins found on an Australian beach dating back to the 900s. Now the latest discovery adds to the controversy by suggesting that white man arrived in Australia earlier than currently believed.
The skull was initially found near Taree, NSW in late 2011 and now carbon dating of the skull and tooth enamel has revealed that it belong to a white man born around 1650.
"At first we weren't really thinking about people coming to Australia until we started to look at the dates and say, 'Oh, that's becoming intriguing'" said Dr Stewart Fallon, a researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra.
However, Melbourne-based archaeologist Adam Ford said we should not jump to conclusions too quickly. "Before we rewrite the history of European settlement we have to consider a number of issues, particularly the circumstances of the discovery." The skull was found in relatively good condition which could suggest that it came from a private collection, or the skull may have been deliberately placed there as a hoax, as happened in the early 1900s with the UK's 'Piltdown Man' – the most famous archaeological hoax in history.
Nevertheless, if proven to be authentic, the skull is an incredible find that could open up a whole new understanding of Australian history.
Ancient Skull From China Could Rewrite History of Human Evolution
A 260,000-year-old skull known as the Dali skull was discovered 40 years ago in China’s Shaanxi province. However, its analysis may force people to rewrite history.
Most scientists believe that Homo sapiens arose in Africa around 200,000 years ago based on fossil evidence from the continent. The DNA analysis of modern humans points to evidence of humans migrating from Africa and spreading across the globe some 120,000 years ago.
However, a new analysis by experts at Texas A&M University in College Station and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing found that the Dali skull is astonishingly similar to two separate Homo sapien skulls previously found in Morocco.
&ldquoI really wasn&rsquot expecting that. I think gene flow could have been multi directional, so some of the traits seen in Europe or Africa could have originated in Asia,&rdquo scientist Sheela Athreya told the New Scientist.
But the striking physical similarities point to the fact that the skulls found in Morocco and the one found in China share DNA with Homo sapiens.
This suggests that modern humans aren't exclusively descendants of Africans. Small groups of them may have migrated to Eurasia more than 200,000 years ago. From there, some of the Asian ancestors possibly moved back to Africa, where they mixed together with the native populations.
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Ancient tools discovery could rewrite history
Was east Africa truly the cradle of humankind ? Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 Peter Dowley
Found during excavations at the Ain Boucherit site in north-eastern Algeria, the tools, which date back 2.4 million years, are 600,000 years older than anything previously found in the country.
Archaeologists now believe that either the first humans spread very rapidly from east Africa or they emerged simultaneously across several different regions of the African continent.
"The evidence from Algeria shows that the cradle of humankind was not restricted to only east Africa," said research leader Professor Mohamed Sahnouni.
"Rather the entire African continent was the cradle of humankind."
While there is still much work to be done in confirming these conclusions, if it is true that mankind did not emerge exclusively in east Africa then it means that the history books of our evolutionary history may very well have to be rewritten.
Ancient stone tools and cut-marked animal bones discovered in Algeria suggest that modern humans’ ancestors called northern Africa home much earlier than archaeologists once thought. https://t.co/jpV3sPJKpW pic.twitter.com/RJirGdhfUJ— Science Magazine (@sciencemagazine) November 30, 2018
Similar stories based on this topic:
- Skull is the oldest Homo sapien remains to have been found on Borneo
- It was thought to belong to an ancestor related to the Australian Aborigines
- But new research suggests it may belong to another group of humans
- It suggests early Aborigines were not the first humans to settle on Borneo
Published: 07:30 BST, 27 June 2016 | Updated: 10:47 BST, 27 June 2016
A 37,000-year-old skull discovered nearly 50 years ago is threatening to rewrite the history of how early modern humans spread from through the Pacific and into Australia.
The skull fragments are thought to belong to one of the first members of our species to arrive on the tropical island of Borneo – long believed to be related to Aboriginal Australians.
But a new study of the bones, which belong to an individual nicknamed Deep Skull by anthropologists, has revealed they may actually belong to another group of modern humans.
The skull fragments found in a cave in Borneo in 1958 have been reanalysed by scientists and threaten to change the current udnerstanding of how modern humans spread around the world
THE ORIGINS OF ABORIGINES
The first complete genetic analysis of of the Y chromosomes of Aboriginal Australian men has suggested the indigenous people of the island had remained isolated there since first arriving 50,000 years ago until the arrival of the first Europeans.
It challenges a previous theory that suggested an influx of people from India arrived in Australia around 4,000-5,000 years ago.
Australia is thought to have been first settled by humans shortly after Homo sapiens left Africa, traveling across Asia and island hopping across the Pacific before reaching Australia.
These people are thought to have been one of the first groups to have left Africa, separating from other Homo sapiens in Europe and Asia around between 65,000 and 75,000 years ago.
The DNA from Y chromosomes, which is passed from father to son, showed no sign of any subsequent migration to the continent.
The data show that Aboriginal Australian Y chromosomes are very distinct from Indian ones.
However, the team admit they still have one major unsolved mystery from the results - exactly how the dingo arrived in Australia 5,000 years ago.
The arrival of these native dogs coincided with a change in the stone tool technoloqy and language used, leading some to suggest a new group of people had arrived in the country, bringing the dogs with them.
Scientists have found these prehistoric humans have delicate features and small body sizes similar to indigenous populations found in Borneo today, such as the Dayak.
It had originally been through these groups arrived with waves of farmers who spread across the island from China around 3,000 years ago.
Anthropologists had thought Deep Skull, which was found in the Niah Cave in Sarawak, belonged to the teenage boy related to the early ancestors of Australian Aborigines.
They are believed to have spread from south Asia through the Pacific and into Australia around 60,000 to 45,000 years ago.
But now the scientists say it appears the first people on Borneo were not these ancient relatives of the Aborigines at all.
Professor Darren Curnoe, director of the University of New South Wales' palaeontology, geobiology and earth archives research center, said: 'Our analysis overturns long-held views about the early history of this region.
'We've found that these very ancient remains most closely resemble some of the Indigenous people of Borneo today, with their delicately built features and small body size, rather than Indigenous people from Australia.'
Deep Skull was discovered by Tom Harrisson of the Sarawak Museum during excavations at the West Mouth of the great Niah Cave complex in 1958.
It was then analysed by prominent British anthropologist Don Brothwell and in 1960 he concluded it belonged to an adolescent male from a population of early Homo sapiens closely related to Indigenous Australians, particularly Tasmanians.
The conclusions led to what is known as the 'two-layer' hypothesis in which South-East Asia is thought to have been initially settled by people related to Indigenous Australians and New Guineans, who were then replaced by farmers from southern China a few thousand years ago.
Ancient discovery set to rewrite Australian history
Five copper coins and a nearly 70-year-old map with an ‘‘X’’ might lead to a discovery that could rewrite Australia’s history.
Australian scientist Ian McIntosh, currently Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University in the US, plans an expedition in July that has stirred up the archaeological community.
The scientist wants to revisit the location where five coins were found in the Northern Territory in 1944 that have proven to be 1000 years old, opening up the possibility that seafarers from distant countries might have landed in Australia much earlier than what is currently believed.
Back in 1944 during World War II, after Japanese bombers had attacked Darwin two years earlier, the Wessel Islands - an uninhabited group of islands off Australia’s north coast - had become a strategic position to help protect the mainland.
Australian soldier Maurie Isenberg was stationed on one of the islands to man a radar station and spent his spare time fishing on the idyllic beaches.
While sitting in the sand with his fishing-rod, he discovered a handful of coins in the sand.
He didn’t have a clue where they could come from but pocketed them anyway and later placed them in a tin.
In 1979 he rediscovered his ‘‘treasure’’ and decided to send the coins to a museum to get them identified.
The coins proved to be 1000 years old.Still not fully realising what treasure he held in his hands, he marked an old colleague’s map with an ‘‘X’’ to remember where he had found them.
The discovery was apparently forgotten again until anthropologist McIntosh got the ball rolling a few months ago.
The coins raise many important questions: How did 1000-year-old coins end up on a remote beach on an island off the northern coast of Australia?
Did explorers from distant lands arrive on Australian shores way before James Cook claimed it for the British throne in 1770?
We do know already that Captain Cook wasn’t the first white seafarer to step on Australia’s shores.
In 1606 a Dutch explorer named Willem Janszoon reached the Cape York peninsula in Queensland, closely followed a few years late by another Dutch seafarer Dirk Hartog.
And the Spaniard Luiz Vaez de Torres discovered the strait between Papua New Guinea and Australia, which was later named Torres Strait in his honour.
However, none of these explorers recognised that they had discovered the famed southern continent, the ‘‘terra australis incognita’’, which was depicted as a counterweight to the known land masses of the northern hemisphere on many world maps of the day.
McIntosh and his team of Australian and American historians, archaeologists, geomorphologists and Aboriginal rangers say that the five coins date back to the 900s to 1300s.
They are African coins from the former Kilwa sultanate, now a World Heritage ruin on an island off Tanzania.
Kilwa once was a flourishing trade port with links to India in the 13th to 16th century.
The trade with gold, silver, pearls, perfumes, Arabian stone ware, Persian ceramics and Chinese porcelain made the city one of the most influential towns in East Africa at the time.
The copper coins were the first coins ever produced in sub-Saharan Africa and according to McIntosh have only twice been found outside Africa: once in Oman and Isenberg’s find in 1944.
The old coins might not be of monetary value, but for archaeologists they are priceless, says McIntosh.
Archaeologists have long suspected that there may have been early maritime trading routes that linked East Africa, Arabia, India and the Spice Islands even 1,000 years ago.
Or the coins could’ve washed ashore after a shipwreck.
When Isenberg discovered the copper coins he also found four coins that originated from the Dutch East India Company - with one dating back to 1690 raising memories of those early Dutch seafarers that stepped on Australian shores well before Cook.
McIntosh wants to answer some of these mysteries during his planned expedition to the Wessel Islands in July.
And it’s not only about revisiting the beach that was marked with an ‘‘X’’ on Isenberg’s map.
He will also be looking for a secret cave Aboriginal legends talk about.
This cave is supposed to be close to the beach where Isenberg once found the coins and is said to be filled with doubloons and weaponry of an ancient era.
Should McIntosh and his team find what they are looking for, the find might not only be priceless treasure, but relics that could rewrite Australian history.
5 ‘Strange’ Skulls That Science Cannot Explain
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Nearly in every corner of the globe, someone has managed to find or excavate mysteries skulls that defy explanation.
Whether these mysterious skulls are of human origin or not, is an ongoing debate among skeptics, researchers and those who firmly believe that the mysterious skulls, which do not resemble any human species, are in fact of extraterrestrial origin, and as such, can and should be interpreted as the ultimate evidence that proves that our planet has been visited by beings, not from Earth.
This is why in this article, we bring you of the most amazing skulls ever discovered on Earth that hint to a possible extraterrestrial origin.
The Paracas skulls
In the barren landscape of the Peruvian desert, in 1928, archeologist Julio Tello made one of the most mysterious discoveries when he uncovered a complex and sophisticated graveyard under the harsh soil of the Paracas desert.
Tello discovered a set of controversial human remains that would forever change how we look at our ancestor and our origins. The bodies in the tombs had some of the largest elongated skulls ever discovered on the planet, called the Paracas skulls. The Peruvian archeologist discovered over 300 mysterious skulls which are believed to be at least around 3000 years old.
As if the mysterious shape of the skulls wasn’t weird enough, a recent DNA analysis performed on some of the skulls presented some of the most enigmatic and incredible results that challenge everything we know about the origin and human evolutionary tree.
The cranium of the Paracas skulls is are least 25 % larger and up to 60% heavier than the skulls of regular human beings. Researchers firmly believe that these traits could not have been achieved through head bindings as some scientists suggest. Interestingly, the mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother, showed mutations that were unknown to any man, primate or animal found on planet Earth. The mutations present in the samples of the Paracas skulls suggest that researchers were dealing with a completely new ‘human-like being’, very different from Homo sapiens, Neanderthals or Denisovans.
The Rhodope Skull
Discovered by a 38-year old resident of Plovdiv, ever since its finding, no one has been able to offer conclusive details about what the mysterious skull is. Dimiter Kovachev, the Director of the Paleontology Museum in Asenovgrad, is positive that the discovery is no fossil and has no analogy” or resemblance to any hominid skull known to science.
The anomalous skull weighs only 250 grams, it has six mysterious cavities which according to UFO enthusiasts, could belong to the creatures ‘sensory organs’.
According to the skull formation, the creature to which the skull belonged could have had up to six eyes, or another set of ‘unknown organs’. The most mysterious feature of the Rhodope Skull is that it lacks a mouth.
The Sealand Skull
It is one of the most controversial artifacts discovered in recent years. The Sealand Skull has raised numerous questions that science cannot find an answer to. Strangely, few researchers have shown interest in analyzing the mysterious artifact, perhaps because they are afraid what they might find out, something that could change the way we look at human origins and our entire history.
It was in 2010 that the skull was first examined at the College of Veterinary Medicine in Denmark. The researchers concluded that they were not able to solve the mystery nor provide anything that would explain to what species it belonged to.
“Although it resembles a mammal, certain characteristics make it impossible to fit into the Linnaean Taxonomy”, scientists said. Since researchers were unable to provide further details and the question regarding the Sealand Skull were many, the skull was sent to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. Carbon dating revealed that this mysterious being lived between 1200 and 1280 BC.
Prehistoric Bizon Skull with bullet hole
The remains of the bison that has a bullet hole in the cranium are displayed at the Museum of Paleontology in Moscow, you can see a perfectly round hole that was supposedly caused by the impact of a projectile launched at high-speed.
Researchers believe, even though they never found the remains of the projectile, that the hole in the cranium was caused by a bullet caliber similar to the ones we use today. Even more strangely, this animal is native to the region of Yakuzia in Eastern Siberia and lived in the region over 30,000 years ago! So what did we miss in history? Is it possible that highly advanced civilization existed thousands of years ago? Before our “modern history”?
Russian Alien skulls
According to reports by Russian newspapers, the mysterious skulls were found in a cave on Mount Bolshoi Tjach nearly two years ago by a group of explorers led by ethnographer Vladimir Melikov.
According to Melikov, the creature of one of the skulls was unlike anything known to man, and it walked on two legs. Melikov states that among the most mysterious features of the skulls is the absence of cranial vault and jaws.
The eye sockets are unusually large having facial features resembling humans. Even when compared with the skull of a bear, it’s hard to think that you do not have in your hands the remains of an alien creature, said Melikov.
Paleontologists in Moscow weren’t too excited when they received photographs of the mysterious skulls, they merely acknowledged that the skulls are unlike anything they had ever seen, suggesting that the skulls could have been submerged and exposed to sand for long periods of time, something that could have altered the shape of the skulls, but, if this were the case, how can we explain the nearly identical ‘deformations’ in both skulls which seem to follow similar patterns?
Even when compared with the skull of a bear, it’s hard to think that you do not have in your hands the remains of an alien creature, said Melikov.
Is this mysterious site Australia’s Stonehenge?
THOUGHT to have been lost more than 60 years ago, “Australia’s Stonehenge” - right on Queensland’s doorstep - has been largely ignored. No longer.
Photo that could rewrite history Source:Supplied
IT COULD be one of the most significant sites on Earth but “Australia’s Stonehenge” remains mostly a mystery to this day.
The incredible ancient stone arrangement was explored in 1939 by Frederic Slater, the former President of the Australian Archaeological and Education Research Society.
At the time, Slater penned a series of excited letters about the discovery, which were unearthed in 2013 by Richard Patterson, a teacher at the Brunswick Valley Historical Society.
“The mound is one of the oldest I should say the oldest, forms of temples in the world and dates back to the Palaeolithic age with the advent of first man,” Slater is believed to have written.
Besides these notes, little is known about the site, which Slater called “more important than Stonehenge”. All but destroyed in the 1940s, it’s said to lie some 40 kilometres from Mullumbimby, in the far north of NSW, but the exact location has never been disclosed for fear the little that remains could be trashed.
The mysterious site is believed to contain 181 standing stones, including sandstone rocks that don’t appear to have occurred there naturally, because the closest sandstone deposit lay more than 20 kilometres away and at the time there were no tools to move them that distance.
It’s believed they may hold inscriptions of the first example of human language. One that’s very complicated, multi-layered and has ,000 words”.
Photo that could rewrite history Source:Supplied
This year, father and son team Steven and Evan Strong set out to bring awareness to what they believe is one of the most important sites on the planet.
The duo argue a combination of recent evidence they’ve uncovered, along with artefacts and Slater’s testimony, prove humans didn’t just come “out of Africa” but instead emerged from Australia.
The Strongs began their 𠇏orgotten Origin” lecture tour at Byron Bay earlier this year, detailing the evidence, local news site The Northern Star reported.
“His (Slater’s) letters were lost and found,” Mr Strong said. “What we’ve now found is archeology that backs up his theory that this was the first language ever (and) was recorded there.
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“The language is a combination of hand signs, letters, “sacred signs”, and body parts … Slater had compiled over 28,000 words in this language.”
Sadly, the site was so badly damaged though, that it makes further investigation virtually impossible.
“They were going to set it up like Stonehenge . it was published all over Australia in major papers, then the site was destroyed, and once it was destroyed the whole thing disappeared, and all of Australia’s notes from 1930 onwards disappeared too.”
𠇊ll we’re trying to do is prove that all the work he did is correct.”
An aerial view of Stonehenge, UK. Source:Snapper Media
While it’s not known whether the existence of this place will ever be definitively confirmed, there is another area dubbed 𠇊ustralia’s Stonehenge” in Glen Innes, NSW, and this one is very real.
Also known as the 𠇊ustralian Standing Stones”, they have surprised many visitors to the town. Built by locals to honour their Celtic heritage, it’s comprised of 40 huge granite rocks, including a circle of 24 rocks.
The Australian Standing Stones, Glenn Innes. Picture: Glenn Innes Tourism Source:Supplied
Thought to be built thousands of years ago as a prehistoric temple, they attract one million visitors each year. Courtesy: Getty.
Thought to be built thousands of years ago as a prehistoric temple, they attract one million visitors each year. Courtesy: Getty
Search for 500-year-old shipwreck could rewrite Australia's history
CAIRNS, Australia – An Australian explorer has begun a search for a Portuguese shipwreck off Australia’s northeast coast that, if found, could rewrite how the continent was discovered.
“I’ve got some very strong clues of a possible Portuguese discovery of Australia,” 78-year-old filmmaker Ben Cropp said.
The discovery would be significant because the first records of non-indigenous mariners to visit the continent credit Dutch explorers for sailing here as early as 1606 to chart the west coast of the continent’s northern Cape York Peninsula. Famed English Captain James Cook charted the continent’s east coast in 1770, which later opened the door to British colonization.
Cropp, a self-described "wreck hunter," set off Sept. 20 on his two-month expedition to the coast of Cape York from his base in Cairns -- the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. Cropp says two Portuguese ships and a Spanish vessel were lost near Cape York in the 16th century, prior to the arrival of the Dutch.
“It’s important,” he said. “It’s all about Australia.”
Cropp’s team has produced more than 150 documentaries and films for several international media organizations, like National Geographic.
Among Cropp’s previous discoveries was the remains of the HMS Pandora, which is regarded as one of the most significant shipwrecks in the Southern Hemisphere. The British frigate ran aground in the Great Barrier Reef at the edge of the Coral Sea and sank in 1791, killing many onboard. Cropp and two others discovered the wreck in November 1977.
Cropp has searched for evidence of pre-Cook Portuguese exploration of Australia’s east coast before, without success.
“I’m sure the Portuguese were here first, but proving it is very, very difficult,” Cropp said.
But now Cropp says he has new evidence that may indicate the Portuguese made landfall along Australia’s northeast coast as early as 1522. Among the clues: a ship’s cannon, ballast and 16th century European maps that seem to show a detailed outline of Australia.
One European map produced in 1542 shows a large sixth continent located in the position of present-day Australia, called "Java-la-Grande" in many similar charts and navigational aids.
“There’s a whole lot of little finds, but none of them give you a true date -- and that’s what I’m searching for,” Cropp said.
The South Pacific coast of the present-day state of Queensland was notorious for shipwrecks.
Historians estimate there are about 1,400 shipwrecks here.
Strict preservation laws protect the sites. They provide crucial evidence in unlocking and understanding the country’s past.
“It is something that we take very seriously,” said Queensland Environment Minister Andrew Powell. “Depending upon the circumstances of when they were lost, ships can almost in some ways become a time capsule -- a moment frozen in time -- with some of that historical and archeological information that we as a society need.”
Researchers and historians believe European and even Asian vessels were sailing in Australian waters for years prior to Cook’s arrival, but finding hard evidence has been difficult.
“There is a possibility that a non-indigenous vessel visited northern and east Australia before Cook,” Powell said. “But attempts to date to locate evidence of a pre-Cook vessel have been proven to be unsubstantiated.”
Some historians also believe the Portuguese government’s policy of secrecy at the time may have contributed to the suppression of its possible discovery. Additionally, the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 may have destroyed vital records of the country’s exploration of coastal Australia.
Cropp says another reason why finding a vessel has proven impossible is the growth of thick coral at the site of shipwrecks. Cropp estimates any wreck of a 16th century Portuguese ship would now be buried under 6 feet (2 meters) of coral.
The current conditions of finding an early Portuguese shipwreck require that Cropp first snorkel above areas of the seafloor he believes could contain more evidence. Then, he must take a closer look by SCUBA diving.
“You can’t find it by other technology,” he said. “It’s mostly visual.”
It’s meticulous, time-consuming work.
“I know these items are there,” Cropp said. “And I’ve just got to find them.”
What he doesn’t expect to find is treasure, which he says the ships wouldn’t have carried since their main purpose was exploration.
But the real treasure of the discovery may be Cropp’s imprint on history.
Why early humans reshaped their children’s skulls
An ancient skull found in Australia suggests our ancestors modified their skulls. Some people still do it today, but why?
It doesn't take a degree in human anatomy to realise that there is something unusual about the Cohuna skull. With its flat, sloping forehead and prominent brow ridge, it looks distinctly primitive.
For decades, the prehistoric Cohuna skull and others like it have occupied a central and contentious role in answering one of the most important questions in human evolutionary studies: where did our species, Homo sapiens, come from?
Most anthropologists now agree that the skulls don't demand a rewrite of the human evolution text books, but this, paradoxically, has made them all the more intriguing. It confirms that they owe their strange appearance not to the blind hand of evolution but to the guiding hand of humanity. Australia's ancient inhabitants were among the first in the world to deliberately transform the shape of their own skulls - and their motives for doing were probably not as strange as they might at first appear.
The skull was a source of controversy from almost the moment it was ploughed up in a field near the town of Cohuna in Victoria, Australia, in 1925. Some researchers enthusiastically proclaimed its strange shape and the generous coating of minerals encrusted around it showed that it predated all then known human skulls, and must therefore have belonged to one of our earliest ancestors. Sceptics, who pointed out it was found in geologically recent soil not far below the surface, were just as certain it did not. They soon won the argument. Genuinely primitive and ancient human skulls were discovered in Africa around this time, and over time anthropologists came to accept that it was there, rather than in Australia, that humanity had evolved long ago. The Cohuna skull was clearly unusual and its anomalous shape was difficult to explain, but it was quietly forgotten.
In the late 1960s, even more of the bizarre skulls were discovered
Or, at least, it was forgotten for a time. In 1948, a second skull, almost identical to the first, was unearthed during excavations at Nacurrie, barely 100 kilometres from the spot where the Cohuna skull one was found.
As if that wasn't strange enough, even more of the bizarre skulls were soon discovered. The most deformed of them all &ndash the Coobool Creek 65 skull &ndash was discovered about 30 kilometres from Nacurrie, and in the late 1960s it was followed by more skulls at another nearby site called Kow Swamp.
By now it was possible to estimate the age of fossils using carbon dating: the Kow Swamp specimens were about 9,000 to 13,000 years old, while the Nacurrie skull was about 11,000 years old. The Coobol Creek remains were about 14,000 years old. This makes the fossils prehistoric, just as the enthusiasts in the 1920s had suspected. But the sceptics had been correct too as human fossils found in Africa were dated at between 3 and 4 million years old. Even our species, Homo sapiens, comfortably predates the strange Australians, as skulls with all the features of modern humans are found in rocks as old as 160,000 years.
The age of the Australian skulls did raise a question, though. Their distinctive sloping foreheads and prominent brow ridges are very like those of an ancient human species called Homo erectus, that lived between 2 million and 140,000 years ago. Why did the Australian skulls look so eerily like this long-dead species?
There was an obvious explanation, according to some researchers. H. erectus must have lived on in Australia until as recently as 10,000 years ago. Others went even further, arguing that H. erectus in southeast Asia and Indonesia had gradually evolved into today's indigenous Australians, with the strange skulls evidence of the process in action.
This idea fits in with what is often called the multiregional theory for the origin of our species, and it directly contradicts the other major idea for the origin of modern humans - the Out of Africa theory. Multiregionalists suggest that our species evolved from ancient H. erectus populations living in Africa, Eurasia and Australia. Out of Africa supporters argue that modern humans evolved in Africa and gradually spread out around the world from there some 60,000 years ago.
Today most researchers favour the Out of Africa model - not least because our genes suggest all living humans can trace their ancestry back to Africa about 60,000 years ago. But some multiregionalists remain, says Darren Curnoe at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and the unusual Australian skulls are key specimens to support their theory.
It is far more likely that their flat foreheads were sculpted by human hands
Curnoe himself once advocated a version of the multiregional theory in Australia after some initial work on the Kow Swamp skulls - but no longer. "I had a road to Damascus moment," he says, and he now thinks the skulls belong to our species, despite their strange appearance. "The so-called erectus-like features are actually not erectus features at all."
It&rsquos true that H. erectus and the Australian skulls both had a sloped forehead and prominent brow ridges, says Curnoe, but there the similarities end. H. erectus had a wide skull and a small braincase, while the unusual Australian skulls are narrow and have large braincases, just like today&rsquos humans do. This makes it highly unlikely that their flat foreheads were shaped by ancient H. erectus genes - and far more likely that they were actually sculpted by human hands.
"If you have a forehead that is exaggerated in flatness due to artificial deformation, combined with a naturally narrow skull, then you end up with an exaggerated brow ridge," says Curnoe. "That's exactly what we see in the Australian skulls."
The idea that the Australian skulls were artificially deformed was first suggested in the mid 1970s. Over the last 40 years the idea has gradually become the mainstream view. The deformation would have occurred when the skull's owners were infants under 12 months in age. Our skulls are soft during this period, and so parents or other adults can use boards, bandages or regular head massaging to control its growth trajectory.
Chimp and great ape skulls in general are equally soft after birth and equally prone to deformation
Artificial skull deformation is possible largely because of compromises deep in our evolutionary past. Humans, and some of our great ape relatives including the chimpanzee, have larger brains than we should for animals of our size. Most of that brain growth occurs after humans and other apes are born - and the initial growth spurt, in the first few years of life, is so rapid that young brains can grow faster than young bones. Consequently, not all of the bones in the skull are fused together when we are born, to allow the brain to push them apart as it expands. Our skull does not begin to fuse into a single solid unit until we are at least a year old.
This makes the skulls of human and great ape infants surprisingly soft and amenable to moulding into a new shape that will be locked in place when the skull does fuse together. "Chimp and great ape skulls in general are equally soft after birth and equally prone to deformation," says Christoph Zollikofer at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. "However, great apes do not have the cognitive and techno- cultural abilities to [modify their infants' skulls]."
Skull modification might have been done with the aim of making males look more masculine
Human brains began to grow particularly large, and human infant skulls became particularly pliable, about 2 million years ago. The first evidence for possible skull modification among our ancestors comes in the form of some 45,000-year-old Neanderthal skulls, but their unusual shape could equally be due to flexing of the bones following burial, says Zollikofer. There is also a 20,000-year-old skull found near Beijing in China that may have been modified, but the remains have been lost and there are questions over the true age of the skull.
This adds to the importance of the Australian skulls: they have been studied many times, and most researchers are convinced that they have been artificially modified - making them possibly the oldest good evidence we have of the practice.
Perhaps researchers would have realised that the skulls were deliberately modified when they were first discovered, if not for the fact that the alterations made them look similar to those of H. erectus. It&rsquos unlikely that prehistoric Australia's skull shapers deliberately aimed to make their skulls look like those of the long extinct human species. Curnoe suggests that modification might instead have been done with the aim of making males look more masculine, which happens to have accentuated features also seen in H erectus. "But of course I'm speculating," he stresses.
In truth we will never know precisely why some prehistoric Australians practiced skull modification. However it is known that people from several other cultures in the more recent past also did so, and historical accounts of their motivations might provide clues. Michael Obladen at Charité University Medicine Berlin, in Germany, has compiled some of these accounts. His works reveals the practice has generally been carried out as a means to improve the social prospects of infants.
Head shaping seems to be a human cultural achievement rooting in the belief in an 'unfinished self'
In pre-Columbian America, for instance, head shaping helped elite members of society to define themselves: an elongated skull was seen as more beautiful and a sign of noble birth. The same thing applied in 19th century Nicaragua. And for some of the Native American tribes including the Chinook and the Cowlitz in 19th century North America, a forehead that had been deliberately flattened - like those of the Australian skulls - was a mark of freedom while those with rounded foreheads were looked down on.
To nobility, beauty and freedom we can add one more motive of some skull shapers. Even into the 20th century one tribe in Papua New Guinea modified their infants in the belief that it boosted the child's intelligence.
"Head shaping seems to be a human cultural achievement rooting in the belief in an 'unfinished self' - the belief that something can and must be improved in the newborn baby," says Obladen - and that's a belief that still exists even in today's developed societies.
Twenty years ago, health professionals in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand launched campaigns to encourage parents to place babies on their backs to sleep, as a way to reduce deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, also known as cot death. By 2002, the campaigns had paid off. In the US, the proportion of parents placing infants on their back to sleep had risen from 13% to 72% - and the number of deaths from SIDS had halved, to just 6 babies in every 10,000.
But a new problem emerged in its place. Encouraging parents to routinely putting babies to sleep on their backs before their soft skulls harden led to a dramatic increase in cases of plagiocephaly, also known as flat head syndrome. A study published last year found almost half of a sample of 440 healthy young babies attending two clinics in Calgary, Canada, showed signs of it.
We will probably never know exactly why Australia's ancient inhabitants shaped their skulls
The condition can be counteracted with a bit of intentional skull modification in the same spirit as the procedures used in prehistoric Australia, using headbands or cranial moulding helmets to return a more socially acceptable shape. It is, however, debatable whether these interventions are necessary. One medical trial found that encouraging parents to vary the sleeping position of their infant was just as effective as using a cranial moulding helmet.
In many ways, the strange Australian skulls have been gradually losing their scientific importance, first as belonging to our oldest human ancestors and then as exciting support for the multiregional theory of our species' origins. But arguably they have gained social importance, providing a unique insight into the behaviour of humans living more than 10,000 years ago. We will probably never know exactly why Australia's ancient inhabitants shaped their skulls, but all the available evidence from more recent cultures engaging in the same practice suggests they did so to improve their social prospects &ndash mirroring the rationale for the use of cranial moulding helmets today.
In this light, perhaps the Cohuna skull is not quite so strange after all.
White man's skull has Australians scratching heads
A centuries-old skull found in northern New South Wales in late 2011, in Canberra. The skull of a white man is raising questions about whether Captain James Cook really was the first European to land on the country's east coast.
The centuries-old skull of a white man found in Australia is raising questions about whether Captain James Cook really was the first European to land on the country's east coast.
The skull was found in northern New South Wales in late 2011, and police initially prepared themselves for a gruesome murder investigation.
But scientific testing revealed that not only was it much older than expected, but possibly belonged to a white man born around 1650, well before Englishman Cook reached the eastern seaboard on the Endeavour in 1770.
"The DNA determined the skull was a male," Detective Sergeant John Williamson told The Daily Telegraph.
"And the anthropologist report states the skull is that of a Caucasoid aged anywhere from 28 to 65."
Australian National University expert Stewart Fallon, who carbon-dated the skull, pulling some collagen from the bone as well as the enamel on a tooth, said he was at first shocked at the age of the relic.
"We didn't know how old this one was, we assumed at first that it was going to be a very young sample," he told AFP.
"When we first did it we weren't really thinking about people coming to Australia and things like until we started to look at the dates and say, 'Oh, that's becoming intriguing'."Australian National University's Dr Stewart Fallon holds a skull found in northern New South Wales in late 2011, in Canberra, July 1, 2013.
He said the test used was quite accurate for dates after 1950 but for earlier samples it was more difficult, and the two samples yielded different dates—though both were within the error range.
"Using them (the dates) together we can do some modelling as to what we expect the calendar age to be . and the way it works out by using those two dates is that we get about an 80 percent probability that the person was born somewhere around the 1650s and died somewhere between 1660 and 1700," Fallon said.
He said there was a 20 percent probability the skull, which was found well-preserved and intact but without any other remains near the Manning River, belonged to someone born between 1780 to 1790 who died between 1805 and 1810.
"Before we rewrite the history of European settlement we have to consider a number of issues, particularly the circumstances of the discovery," archaeologist Adam Ford told the Telegraph.
"The fact the skull is in good condition and found alone could easily point to it coming from a private collection and skulls were very popular with collectors in the 19th century."
Cassie Mercer, editor of Australia And New Zealand Inside History, said the skull "could be an incredible find".
"I guess it's a very exciting find because it could open up a whole lot of avenues of history that we haven't been able to explore before," she told AFP.
Dutch explorers made the earliest European landings in Cape York in Australia's far north and western Australia in the 1600s.