Meet the Ancestors

The July/August edition of Australasian Science is out. (We’re normally monthly, but twice a year the editor Guy Nolch takes a break, understandable considering the way he manages to produce the whole magazine pretty much on his own.)

As usual only a few of my articles is online, but I thought I’d draw attention to two pieces that cover new discoveries that challenge what we all think we know about history.

The first one is mine, on a new species of extinct human‘s identification. I found it an odd article – the discovery is not Earth-shattering, but it appears to be more significant than one made in the same region not long before, which got far more attention. The most important thing is the way both discoveries add to the picture  demonstrating the human family tree has  had far more branches than we thought possible. Instead of a relatively simple linear advance from some ape-like ancestor to ourselves (with perhaps the odd branch off to Neanderthals) we’re seeing a huge array of species, of which we and Homo Floriensis are the most recent survivors.

As exciting as people found the discovery of the Hobbit, I don’t think the popular perceptions of even scientifically educated laypeople have come to the grips with just how many near relatives we have had representing what many people might see as “false starts” on the development of a highly technological species.

The other one, of which only a small portion is online is, is a feature about Indigenous Australian agriculture. As far as most Australians are concerned this didn’t exist. Racists use the absence as a justification for putting down Aborigines. Progressives argue it had nothing to do with the people, the absence of agriculture pre-1788 is a reflection of a lack of suitable plants. After all the only native plant to be widely commercialised today is the macadamia nut.

However, it seems both sides are wrong, because in fact there was extensive agriculture before European arrival. I was vaguely aware there was evidence for permanent settlements with agriculture and eel-farming around Portland, but I thought that outside the Torres Strait Islands that was it. However, Rupert Gerritsen puts together considerable evidence to make the case that agriculture was actually quite widespread across Australia, particularly in the farming of yams.

There is no rational reason why the discovery of ancient agriculture should generate more respect for modern Aborigines, but I suspect it will – assuming Gerritsen turns out to be right.  At the very least it demonstrates how inaccurate the general perception of this continent’s history really is.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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