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Prehistoric World

Date for First Australians

Edited from BBC News, 19 February 2003. Edited 13 March 2023

A new analysis in 2002 of Australia's oldest human remains suggested that humans arrived on the continent about 50,000 BC.

The evidence was based on a re-examination of the so-called Mungo Man skeleton, which had been unearthed in New South Wales (NSW) in 1974. Scientists stated that the individual had probably been buried about 40,000 BC, when humans had been living in the area for some 10,000 years.

The data probably came as a relief to palaeontologists who were supporting the 'Out of Africa' theory. Some had suggested the skeleton was 60,000 years old, challenging the popular idea that all people alive today are descended from a group which began to emigrate from Africa some 60,000-70,000 years ago.

Early wanderers

Under the 'Out of Africa' hypothesis, ancient people could not have arrived in Australia before about 50,000 years ago because their spread across the world from Africa was very slow.

Mungo Man's discoverer, James Bowler of the University of Melbourne, stated that the 2002 data corrected previous estimates for the date of human burials at the site. The study by his team showed that humans were present at Lake Mungo as early as 50-46,000 years ago.

They found no evidence to support claims for human occupation or burials near 60,000 years ago.

Oldest DNA

Lake Mungo is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world.

Two skeletons have been found in the area: 'Mungo I', the first recorded cremation, dated at about 26,000 years ago, and 'Mungo III', the world's oldest ritual ochre burial, and source of the world's oldest mitochondrial DNA.

The 2002 analysis was based on the dating of sand taken from the burial site. An earlier team, led by Alan Thorne, put the date at 60,000 years ago based on samples taken from a site farther away. That date has now been discredited while the 50,000 years date has received further confirmation.

Mungo Man
Mungo Man
  • Discovered at Lake Mungo in far west NSW in 1974
  • Had been covered in red ochre during a burial ritual
  • Hands were interlocked and positioned over the penis
  • Found in same area as cremated remains of female skeleton known by local Australian aborigines as Mungo Lady


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