Homo erectus in Australia?

01st December 2007

J. Peter White

You can’t be too careful with your press releases.

In May 2007 Georgi Hudjashov and 10 colleagues reported a detailed study of mtDNA and Y chromosome analysis of Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians. Part of their abstract reads: ‘The analysis reveals no evidence for any archaic maternal or paternal lineages in Australians, despite some suggestively robust features in the Australian fossil record, thus weakening the argument for continuity with any earlier Homo erectus populations in Southeast Asia’ (Hudjashov et al. 2007:8726). This accurately places H. erectus where we know it existed, in Southeast Asia.

In the University of Cambridge press release for 7 May, however, a slightly different statement emerged. Noting that ‘one of the main reasons for doubting the ‘Out of Africa’ theory was the existence of inconsistent evidence in Australia’, it said that ‘these discrepancies exist either because the early colonists interbred with the local Homo erectus population or …’ (University of Cambridge 2007, my emphasis). This statement was replicated by the Anglia Ruskin University press release (Anglia Ruskin University 2007).

By the time it reached The Times in London there had been further morphing into ‘The scientists found no evidence of any interbreeding with Homo erectus, Australia’s original inhabitants’ (Rose 2007:32, my emphasis). New Scientist on 12 May took the mistake one step further, attributing the statement directly to Dr Peter Forster, one of the report’s authors. As Forster wrote to me (pers. comm., 16 May 2007) ‘Homo erectus in Australia – now that would be a novelty!’ Indeed.

References

Anglia Ruskin University 2007 DNA links Aborigines to African Walkabout. Retrieved 17 October 2007 from http://www.anglia.ac.uk/ruskin/en/home/ news/archive/dna_links.html.

Hudjashov, G., T. Kivisild, P.A. Underhill, P. Endicott, J.J. Sanchez, A.A. Lin, P. Shen, P. Oefner, C. Renfrew, R. Villems and P. Forster 2007 Revealing the prehistoric settlement of Australia by Y chromosome and mtDNA analysis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(21):8726-8730.

Rose, D. 2007 Genetic tests on Australian fossils suggest Aborigines did migrate out of Africa. The Times 8 May 2007, p.32.

University of Cambridge 2007 DNA Links Aborigines to African Walkabout. Retrieved 17 October 2007 from http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/news/press/ dpp/2007050401.

New Scientist 2007 Aboriginals ‘out of Africa’ too…’ New Scientist 2603:5.

J. Peter White
Homo erectus in Australia?
December 2007
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