Obituary: Alan Thorne: Scientist, communicator, ‘bridge-builder’ and mentor (1939-2012)

19th December 2012

The death of Alan Gordon Thorne on 21 May 2012 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease marks the end of an era for Australian palaeoanthropology and archaeology. Alan’s ideas have been at the core of international debate about the origins of modern humans, and especially Indigenous Australians, for more than 40 years. More than any of his predecessors, he provided palaeoanthropology with a solid empirical foundation in the form of Pleistocene and Holocene human remains from the Australian continent and testable models for the origins of Indigenous Australians. Alan was also an internationally regarded science communicator and populariser of palaeoanthropology, archaeology and history. He was a builder of bridges between people of different cultures, including Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians, and gained great respect among community leaders, especially in the Willandra Lakes area, for his efforts. Alan was a mentor to two generations of Australian anthropologists and archaeologists whom he supervised or influenced with his gift for communication and great generosity and encouragement.

Alan grew up on the north shore of Sydney where he developed his passion for nature, especially his love of reptiles, a fascination he maintained for most of his life. During the first five years of our friendship the granny flat at the back of his house in the Canberra suburb of Ainslie was filled with pythons from Australia, Indonesia and South America. They were housed alongside his remarkably comprehensive hominin cast collection and provided a fascinating, colourful and welcome distraction from the comparatively dull world of fossil bones. When asked during an interview by Robyn Williams, broadcast on the ABC’s Science Show in 2000, why he was breeding snakes, he replied: “Well I can’t get a license to breed humans, and I wouldn’t want one anyway because it would take me 18 or 20 years before I could do the next generation, and in the meantime it’d be very expensive and the adolescents would be playing rock music all the time.” Alan always saw the lighter side of his work and of life.

He began his career as a reporter, subeditor and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and Financial Review. His passion for writing and science communication and active engagement with the media were enduring themes in his career. This was one of his greatest gifts to me as a supervisor and later as a collaborator and mentor: imparting a passion for writing and understanding the importance of science communication and public engagement. 

With Bob Raymond he wrote and made the award winning 11-part television series Man on the Rim, first broadcast in 1988, and in doing so inspired a new generation of palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists, including me, and brought our collective passion for the past to the broadest possible audience. The series was filmed in Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Siberia, Canada, USA, Mexico, Chile, Peru and island nations across the Pacific Ocean, and included bamboo raft experiments to simulate oceanic migrations. His flair for film was also seen in his highly successful 1982 presentation of Film Australia’s The Entombed Warriors, about the terracotta horses and soldiers buried with China’s first emperor, and his 1983 presentation and narration of Out of Time, Out of Place, a film about human evolution research in Australia, Indonesia and China.

After completing a BA, he went on to undertake an MA with Honours and a PhD at the University of Sydney. While studying, he worked as a tutor in zoology and human anatomy. He studied for his PhD under Neil Macintosh, whose work was a strong influence on Alan, especially his ideas about the Pleistocene origins of Indigenous Australians. A key part of Alan’s work was extending Macintosh’s, and also Joe Birdsell’s, views that Australia had been settled in multiple waves during the Pleistocene. During his doctoral research at Kow Swamp in Victoria he led a team that excavated a large sample of human skeletal remains, some dating from the Pleistocene. In doing so, he was the first researcher to provide palaeoanthropology with a sample of human remains from well understood contexts, in terms of provenance and dating. This marked a major shift in scientific debate about the origins of Indigenous Australians, for the first time incorporating reliable fossil human data and dates.

Following the discovery of human remains at Lake Mungo in the late 1960s by Jim Bowler, Alan began a long association with the Willandra Lakes region and its traditional owners and their ancestors, such as the ‘Mungo Lady’ and ‘Mungo Man’. The latter relationship resulted in important shifts in the way palaeoanthropologists worked within Indigenous communities, aided greatly by the return of the ‘Mungo Lady’ in 1991 to the community for safekeeping.

In an article written by Joseph D’Agnese and published in 2002 in Discover Magazine, Alan reflected on discussions he had with Indigenous elders at the time about whether to rebury or preserve her: “If you do away with her bones,” he told them, “I’ll always be right. You won’t be able to refute my work. Someday there will be an Aboriginal Alan Thorne, and he’ll have a different way of looking at these bones. You have to give him that chance.” He took the risk, recognising the symbolism of returning the Mungo Lady remains to the Willandra people, as well as the historical significance of her return to palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists and the broader community at a time when the nation was rethinking its history and properly recognising the place of its Indigenous peoples.

In the 1970s, Alan was a member of the first Australian scientific delegation to China. The connections and friendships he made at the time led to some of his most important scientific and public contributions. With Wu Xinzhi and Milford Wolpoff he developed and published in 1984 the multiregional model of human evolution: an hypothesis still at the centre of international debate about modern human origins. He also helped to arrange the first visit of China’s Terracotta Warriors to Australia, and the connections he made helped to bring China’s archaeology and history to a wide international audience through Man on the Rim.

Alan’s interests and reach extended to many other areas. In the field of forensics, he developed manuals for anthropologists, archaeologists and police officers to help identify human remains and, crucially, to distinguish Indigenous from non- Indigenous skeletons.

He was also a member and chairman of the Human Biology and Health Advisory Committee of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. He was a consultant to the Australian Museum for their exhibition Tracks through Time and to the American Museum of Natural History.

Alan was also an advisor to UNESCO for two World Heritage nominations: Sangiran and the Willandra Lakes. He served on numerous advisory committees and editorial boards, including from 1979 to 1982 as co-editor of Australian Archaeology. He was a member of nine learned societies, including the Australian Academy of the Humanities, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1994. That same year, he received the inaugural Riversleigh Medal for contributions to Australian palaeoanthropology.

Over four decades, Alan trained two generations and inspired many more undergraduate and postgraduate students and academics. Among the PhD students he supervised are Peter Brown, Stephen Webb, Colin Pardoe and myself, all of us leaving our own mark on Australian palaeoanthropology thanks to his training and mentoring. His commitment to robust discussion (the contesting of ideas), emphasis on Popperian hypothesis testing and constant reconsideration of biological basics—such as ‘just what is a species?’—equipped us all with the skills we needed to stand on our own two feet scientifically. In some cases, these led us to extend his work, in others, to challenge Alan’s ideas. His research, and his mentoring of us, saw Australian palaeoanthropology blossom into an internationally influential field and helped it to develop the strong reputation it enjoys today.

Alan touched the lives of literally millions of people through his scientific research, popular films and books. He counted many different people among his close friends, maintaining long friendships with Indigenous community leaders and many leading scientists, including those whose ideas were the intellectual antithesis of his own. Such was his sense of humanity and the great respect he received from his peers across the world. 

Darren Curnoe
Obituary: Alan Thorne: Scientist, communicator, ‘bridge-builder’ and mentor (1939-2012)
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