- The Washington Times - Monday, March 10, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia A study of early life in Australia has re-dated the age of the continent's oldest human remains Mungo Man and Mungo Lady at 40,000 years, researchers announced recently.
It was previously estimated Mungo Man dated from 62,000 years ago and Mungo Lady from 32,000 years. The re-dating is important because it is the first time scientists have agreed on the ages of the remains, confirming that people have lived in Australia for much longer than once thought.
"Australia's colonization is one of the keys to our understanding of how Homo sapiens evolved and spread around the world, so it is critical we get the story correct," team leader Jim Bowler, a professor at the University of Melbourne, told UPI.
Lake Mungo, where the burial sites were found, is the name given to a series of large, relic Pleistocene lake beds located in the desert about 620 miles west of Sydney.
Pleistocene is the era after the ice age and before recent time, between 1.8 million and 11,000 years ago. In the Pleistocene, the lakes contained water and small groups of people lived, fished and hunted nearby.
In these soft sands, Mr. Bowler discovered a charred skeleton in 1969 that he named Mungo Lady. Returning in 1974, he found a second complete skeleton, caked with red ocher, near the previous find; this became known as Mungo Man.
The site is significant because it is the world's earliest well-dated example of sophisticated burial rituals. In particular, Mungo Lady is the world's earliest recorded cremation.
In 1999, researchers estimated the age of Mungo Man to be 62,000 years.
"This rocked established ideas, as it showed Mungo Man to be the oldest human remains in Australia," said Mr. Bowler. Previously, it had been thought people had not entered Australia until, at most, 40,000 years ago.
Because of the intense debate, Mr. Bowler gathered a new, interdisciplinary team, ran independent lab trials and, for the first time, included the descendants of the Mungo people in the project. The intent was to put an end to the debate.
The new study used a dating method called optically stimulated luminescence, to date the last time sand grains buried above and below the grave were exposed to the sun. This method is preferred to carbon dating because it is more reliable beyond 40,000 years.
"The new finding confirms that the first Australians had colonized the country by 50,000 years ago," Mr. Bowler said.
The Mungo remains have held great fascination for scientists since they were first uncovered. One reason, according to Mr. Bowler, "is the cultural richness of these people, with their stone technologies, art and sophisticated burial practices."
The greatest reason for their fame is that Mungo Man and Mungo Lady are Homo sapiens, not dissimilar in appearance from Australia's current-day Aboriginal people. This has sparked debate about how they came to be there.
"Remember, Homo sapiens were just starting to take over from Neanderthals in Europe, and there was no sign of people in America," Mr. Bowler said. "And there are no comparable finds in near Asia."
"The history of humans on all continents is always controversial," Mike Archer, a paleontologist and director of the Australian Museum, told UPI.
Mr. Archer said the common theory is that Homo sapiens came to Australia from Flores, in Indonesia, drifting with the currents on bamboo rafts.
"But it's also possible that Homo sapiens evolved in Australia from the first people who came in, and spread back through Indonesia and then to the rest of the world," Mr. Archer said. "This is an Australia-centric view, but it's possible. After all, many groups of birds originated here."
Mr. Bowler does not consider the new Mungo finding adds anything new to the story of Homo sapiens, other than clarifying the time record in Australia. Mr. Archer agrees.
"Mungo is just a last moment on the human evolutionary tree, but it is very important to Australia," Mr. Archer added.
So, is this the last word on Mungo?
"Not likely," said Mr. Archer. "The results may not be credible. Besides, we need to understand that people have been in Australia longer than we think. There is a good chance for deposits and skeletal remains much, much older than those at Mungo. I believe Mungo is the beginning of the story, not the end."
John Mulvaney, emeritus professor of archaeology at the Australian National University in Canberra, who worked at Lake Mungo in the 1960s and '70s, agrees.
"I'm quite happy with the re-dating. But I'd like to see more work to verify the dates," he said. "The fascinating thing about Mungo is that there are so few remains from this period. And here at Mungo we have evidence of such a complex society. These people had crossed Australia, they had fire, they had ocher taken from a place perhaps hundreds of kilometers away, and they had these sophisticated burial rituals."
The re-dating and some other details in this report were published in the Feb. 20 issue of Nature.

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