Australian Aborigines - Australoids

The question of the origin of Australian Aborigines has long fascinated scholars. Ever since their distinctive appearance was described by early European voyagers in the seventeenth century and named 'Australoid', many theories explaining Aboriginal origins have been advanced.


The first Australian Pleistocene human skull was found in southern Queensland in 1884. This is the Talgai skull, which was found by a contractor, William Naish, when it was exposed in the banks of a billabong after an exceptional flood on the Darling Downs. Naish gave the skull to the Clark family, who kept it for the next thirty years in their homestead at East Talgai. In 1914 it came to the attention of the Australian geologist Sir Edgeworth David, of Sydney University. He was shown the precise find-spot of the skull by Naish, then aged 76 and crippled with rheumatism, who was carried to the site.


The Talgai skull was purchased by Sydney University. When found, it was covered by a massive encrustation of calcium carbonate, but once this was chipped away in archaic, robust type of skull was revealed. All Australian human remains so far found belong to the youngest form of the human race, Homo sapiens sapiens, but this skull looked remarkably rugged and archaic. In 1948 Professor Macintosh , of Sydney University, became interested in the Talgai skull and embarked on what was to become an outstanding twenty-year-long detective hunt to find its precise original location and age. He examined all the written records and then began the search for a local contact who could guide him to the spot.

Sthenurus jawbone in situ, Cloggs Cave, Victoria. The remains of this
species of kangaroo lay at a depth of 2 metres in a layer older than 21 0000 years.

Despite false trails, destroyed evidence and conflicting testimony, in 1967 he at last found one of the men who had carried Naish to the site in 1914: 70-year-old Charles Fraser of Pratten. The long search for the fist-hand witness to Naish's identification of the site was over. The site to which Charles Fraser guided Macintosh and geologist Edmund gill accorded very well with the descriptions of David and Naish.! Shop Mizuno Team Sports! Never Settle!


Analysis of the fragmentary, crushed and distorted Talgai skull has shown that it was that of a boy of about 15, who died as the result of a massive blow to the side of the head. The skull had been 'rolled', that is, transported by water along a watercourse. The generally accepted dating is now between 9000 and 11 000 years old. Although the canine teeth and palate are remarkably large, Talgai does fit within the range of variation of the AusTralian Aboriginal population. The next significant skull to be found was Cohuna, a well-preserved cranium and facial skeleton, unearthed in 1925 by a plough on the northwestern edge of Kow Swamp, southeast of the town of Cohuna.

This waisted axe from Papua New Guinea was one of twenty-four flaked axes found
on the 80-metre Huon Terraces. It was discovered in a layer of volcanic ash dated to
about 40 000 years old, and is the earliest stone axe adapted for hafting yet found in the world.

No means were available to find the age of the skull. The teeth and palate, whilst typically Aboriginal, are much larger than the Australian average. The outstanding feature of Cohuna is its great size and robustness, far exceeding both the average Aboriginal cranium and Talgai. The forehead has been artificially flattened, as discussed below a relation to Kow Swamp.


In 1940 another major fossil find in Victoria was made near Keilor. This skull was discovered by an alert quarry worker, James white, who unearthed it whilst digging into soft terrace silts being removed to make fine mouldings. Swinging his pick while standing on the quarry floor, he felt it enter something hard. He dug out the object, washed it in the river, and found he had put a neat hole into a fossil skull! the site, which lies near the junction of Dry Creek and the Maribynong River, 2.5 kilometresnorth of Keilor and 16 kilometres north of Melbourne, was then investigated by a number of workers. Among them was Edmund gill, then curator of palaeontology at the national Museum of Victoria. He showed that the cranium was contemporary with fauna remains embedded in the Keilor Terrace.

The manufacture and use of stone tools.

The skull was encrusted with a 2-millimetre thick layer of carbonate, but when this was removed, a yellow loess-like silt was found trapped inside the cranium. This was identical to the upper part of the silt comprising the Keilor Terrace. Moreover, the carbonate encrustation on the skull could only be accounted for if the skull came from a zone of secondary carbonate deposition in the silt.

Diagrammatic cross section through the Keilor site, Victoria. (After Bowler 1976)

The cranium did not belong to a burial intruding into this layer from above, but showed evidence of wear, indicating that it was a 'rolled skull', which must have been rolled into position by the water from a distance upstream, at a time roughly contemporary with the deposition of the sediments. The chemical composition of the skull and other fauna remains from the terrace were found to be similar, which suggested that the skull was in situ. Radiocarbon dates from the femur and skull itself have provided an age of about 13 000 years. The (male) skull is characterised by a full and rounded forehead, and lack of the prominent eyebrow ridges and projecting jaw of Talgai and Cohuna. Thorne, Freedman and Lofgren describe it as gracile, Brown as robust.

Many excavations have been conducted in the Keilor Terrace, but particular mention should be made of the work of Alexander Gallus, a Hungarian archaeologist based in Melbourne, who has concentrated on the oldest deposits. In the base of the D clay, he has uncovered separately both the remains of extinct megafauna and some undoubted stone tools. Many  pieces of stone and bone claimed to be tools by Gallus have been rejected by other archaeologists. Indeed, after a conference in 1971, a large group of scientists visited Keilor, filled with scepticism after seeing Gallus's 'tools', only for Jim bowler to find an indisputable flake implement firmly embedded in the D clay. There is thus at least some evidence of human activity in the oldest deposits at Keilor. Many radiocarbon dates have been obtained on charcoal particles and burnt earth, and 'a conservative age estimate of the lower levels of the D clay would place it at 36 000 BP whilst an age of 45 000 BP is indeed possible'. Gallis's claims of an antiquity of not less than 75 000 to 1000 000 years for the earliest chopper industry remain to be substantiated. It was generally thought in the mid-1960s that the Talgai and similar fossil skulls represented an archaic form of Homo sapiens, bearing some resemblance to the fossil skulls of Java, whereas Keilor was a younger, more evolved form. However, discoveries at Mungo and Kow Swamp soon considerably complicated the picture. 


The remarkable discoveries at Kow Swamp stemmed from an outstanding piece of detective work by Alan Thorne. In August 1967, he was examining the human skeletal collections held in the National Museum of Victoria in Melbourne when he came across a museum drawer containing a partial skeleton of remarkably archaic appearance. The bones were heavily mineralised and carbonate-encrusted, and the skull was reminiscent of the Cohuna cranium. From a police report of the location of the find, he traced the skeleton back to the exact find-spot, which was not far from where the Cohuna skull was found. Excavation began in 1968 and revealed part of the same skeleton still in situ, including the other half of one of the bones in the museum drawer. The skeleton was called Kow Swamp 1, since it lay on the shore of Kow Swamp in northern Victoria. Within a few months of the excavation of Kow Swamp 1, additional burial areas were found around the swamp by an interested local resident, Gordon Spark. By 1972 the remains of at least forty individuals had been excavated.

The stratification and evidence from Cloggs Cave, Victoria

Most of the human remains were located along the eastern shore of Kow Swamp in a narrow belt of lake silt, partially overlain by a low crescentic sand dune. Radiocarbon dates, obtained from bone and charcoal samples associated with the burials, showed that the burials span a period of at least 3500 years, from about 13 000 to 9500 BP. The graves had been dug into relatively soft silt and sand. Carbonate mineralisation of the skeletons after burial had enhanced their preservation, leading to an encrustation up to 1 centimetre thick. Although many burials had been disturbed by earth-moving when an irrigation channel was constructed through part of the site, these disturbed skeletons could be reassembled fairly easily, because differential mineralisation had rendered the bones of each individual a slightly different colour.

Comparison of the Keilor skull with more robust skulls from Cohuna,
Talgai and Mossgiel. (All are male.) The forehead of the Cohuna skull has
probably been flattened by artificial deformation. (After Macintosh 1965)

Twelve undisturbed graves were excavated, in which the bodies were orientated in a variety of positions. Three were laid out horizontally and fully extended, two on their backs, and one on its left side. Others were in a crouched position, including one facing forward and downward, with the knees drawn up under the chest and hands placed in front of the face. Tightly flexed burials, with the knees brought up to the chest, were also present; the body laid on the left side or on its back. At least one instance of cremation was also found. As in more recent traditional societies, a great variety of burial styles were practised. The skeletons found at Kow Swamp included men, women, juveniles and infants. This burial complex is at present the largest single population of the late Pleistocene epoch found in one locality anywhere in the world. Kow Swamp is thus of great importance not only for Australia, but also for world prehistory.

Time chart of the last 3 million years of human occupation

The enigma of Kow Swamp is that the skulls, although younger than Keilor and the Willandra Lake hominids appear much more archaic. The people buried at Kow Swamp had large, long heads with exceptionally thick bone, up to 13 millimetres thick. Their faces were large, wide and projecting, with prominent brow ridges and flat, receding foreheads. Seen from above, the skulls show pronounced inward curvature behind the eye sockets, which makes the skull look rather like a flask. The jaws and teeth are huge, indeed some mandibles are more massive than those of Java Man (Homo erectus, previously known as Pithecanthropus, from the Middle Pleistocene at Sangiran).

The Kow Swamp 5 skull compared with modern artificially deformed and undeformed skulls.
Left: Midline cranial contours of Kow Swamp 5 (dashed line) and a modern Murray Valley male Aborigine.
Right: Midline cranial contours of an artificially deformed Arawe male (dashed line) and an undeformed male from northern New Britain. (After Brown 198a)

Teeth are not generally well preserved at Kow Swamp, and few teeth survive with their enamel crowns intact. In addition to damage from postmortem erosion teeth and disturbance to the site, all adult individuals have suffered pronounced tooth wear. The use of grinding stones to grind up seeds and hard fruits was probably responsible for producing gritty foods, which led to heavy wear on the molars. Only one individual is of advanced age, yet almost every adult's first molars show such a high degree of wear that the roots have been exposed and worn down halfway to their ends. This led to the chronic periodontal disease evident in many individuals. The rugged, heavy, archaic-looking Kow Swamp remains suggest a population physically similar to those of Cohuna and Talgai, contrasting with the more modern-looking, gracile Keilor and WLH 1 and WLH 3 people. In particular, the gracile group lack the marked eyebrow ridges, flat receding foreheads, thick bone, and massive jaws of the robust Kow Swamp skulls. Grave goods were found with several of the Kow Swamp burials. These were ochre, shells, marsupial teeth and quartz artefacts, and one body was laid to rest on a bed of mussel shells. As at Mungo 40 000 years earlier, ochre was powdered over a corpse, which shows the long continuity of such customs.

Cloggs Cave, Buchan, Victoria. The small black overhang on the
right protects the rock-shelter and the high cleft leads into the inner chamber.

The presence of grave goods may simply mean that the corpses were being buried with the normal equipment of everyday life, but thee are indications that special nonutilitarian regalia were also sometimes included. One body buried at Kow Swamp some 12 000 years ago wore a band of kangaroo incisor teeth  around the head. Traces of resin on the teeth showed that they had been stuck together in a band. Similar headbands of kangaroo teeth, plant fibre and resin were worn by Central Desert Aborigines, both men and women, in the nineteenth century. One of the most spectacular finds of this kind was the huge pierced tooth necklace slung from the neck of the man buried in the lunette of the relict Lake Nitchie in western new south Wales. No fewer than 178 pierced teeth of the Tasmanian devil made up the necklace. The teeth must derive from a minimum of forty-seven individual animals, which are now extinct on the Australian mainland. Indeed, if such necklaces were common, it is not surprising that Tasmanian devils became extinct! Each tooth is pierced by a hole that was ground and gouged - a tremendous labour. This necklace is unique both in present Aboriginal culture and in prehistoric Australia.

Mangrove log raft, Western Australia. A Worora youth paddles this raft on George water,
Glenelg River district. (In the Basedow Collection, national Museum of Australia, Canberra.)

The Nitchie burial has other important features. The skeleton was compressed downwards into a shaft-like pit, there wee ochre pellets in the grave, and he lacked his two central upper front teeth. This indicates prehistoric tooth avulsion, the widespread practice in male initiation rites of knocking out one or two of the novice's upper incisors. If so, this ritual practice goes back at least some 6500 to 7000 years, the age of the Lake Nitchie burial (6820 +- 200 BP bone collagen date). The skull was originally placed by Thorne in his robust group of prehistoric Australians, on the basis of large size and rugged appearance, but Howells, Freedman, Lofgren, Habgood and Brown consider it belongs in the gracile group. Macintosh claimed from the length of the femur that the man was 1875 millimetres (6 feet 1.1/2 inches) tall, but this has now been revised to 1733 millimetres (5 feet 8.1/4 inches).


A skull with extreme 'robust' characteristics was found near Cossack in the northwest of Western Australia, almost 5000 kilometres from Lake Nitchie and Kow Swamp. The remains lay at the base of an eroding coastal dune, which on geomorphological grounds cannot be more than 6500 years old, when the sea reached its present level and formed the dunes. The skull was that of a man about 40 years old, and of a large powerful build. The cranial bones are very thick, and the forehead has a marked backward slope. In fact, Cossack man has the most sloping forehead and is the most long-headed (dolichocephalic) Aborigine yet found in past or present Australia. He also had his right upper front tooth missing long before death, probably indicating its removal in initiation rites. Cossack is similar to Kow Swamp man, but differs markedly from recent male Aborigines in Western Australia. The importance of this find is that it demonstrates that the robust type of Aboriginal physique was not confined to the east, but was widespread over the continent, and lasted into post-glacial times.

Kow Swamp skull 5 (male), Victoria, showing the massive and archaic features
of this group of robust, early Australians. The burial is about 13 000 years old.

The long, sloping foreheads (known as extreme frontal recession) of skulls such as Cossack, Cohuna and Kow Swamp prompted the suggestion that the skulls might have been artificially flattened and deformed. Deformation by bindings or by strapping boards to children's heads has occurred in various parts of the world, for example among the Maya of Mexico and in some of the Melanesian islands north of Australia, but it was rare in Aboriginal Australia. Among Australian Aborigines, only three groups are recorded as practising intentional head deformation, and there are no artificially flattened skulls in museum collections. These are groups from northern Victoria, Cape York and Mabuiag in Torres Strait. There is no record of what type of deformation was used in Victoria, but the other two societies pracitised infant head-pressing rather than binding. In Cape York, an observe in 1852 recorded that: 'Pressure is made by the mother with her hands ... one being applied to the forehead and the other to the occiput, both of which are thereby flattened, while the skull is rendered proportionally broader and longer than it would naturally have been.'

Kow Swamp skeleton 14 (male), during excavation. Quartz stone
artefacts and freshwater mussel shells were included in the grave fill.  

By a comparison of deliberately deformed Arawe (of southern New Britain) male skulls with other Melanesian male skulls that were definitely not deformed, physical anthropologist Peter Brown was able to identify the changes produced by deformation (figure 4.3). He than compared a series of skulls from Victoria, including Kow Swamp and Cohuna. Brown's study sought to establish that Cohuna and some of the Kow Swamp and other robust skulls were artificially deformed. However, according to Thorne, an alternative explanation for the peculiarities of some robust skulls such as Kow Swamp and Cossack is that they reflect the admixture of the robust and gracile populations. Similar high, flat, sloping foreheads are seen on some contemporary Aborigines living in Central Australia, who were certainly never subjected to head-binging or pressing. 


Another Pleistocene skull was found in 1967 by Duncan Merrilees, of the University of Western Australia, at Lake Tandou, 150 kilometres northwest of Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes region. It lay on the surface of the lake's lunette, closely associated with a shell midden. A sample of shells from the midden gave a date of 15 210 +- 160 BP (SUA-1805).

Necklace from the Lake Nitchie burial, New south Wales. The Lake Nitchie man wore a necklace of 178
pierced Tasmanian devil teeth, taken from at least forty-seven different animals. Each tooth is
pierced by a hole that was ground and gouged out. (The Australian Museum)

After an exhaustive study, Leonard Freedman and Marcel Lofgren of the same university concluded that:

The skeleton probably comes from a male individual 20-25 years of age. The cranium is similar to that of Lake Nitchie and Keilor in overall 'size' and 'shape' ... The analysis made also suggests that Kow Swamp 1 is markedly different in 'shape' to the Lake Tandou, lake Nitchie and Keilor crania but that the four fossil crania differ strongly from a recent Murray Valley sample in 'size' and 'shape' in about equal proportions ... Tandou fits the 'gracile' group well but is cranial vault bones are very thick, as are those of the so-called 'robust' crania.


In 1989 an Aboriginal skeleton was found in a cave on King Island in Bass Strait off the northwestern tip of Tasmania by Robin Sim. This was studied in situ b Thorne (with the permission of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre) before being reburied. Charcoal adhering to some of the skeletal remains gave a date of 14 270 +- 640 BP (ANU-7039). At that time of lower sea level, King Island was linked by land to both Tasmania and the mainland, and the cave would have been about 20 to 25 kilometres inland, on the side of a raised plateau overlooking a wide coastal plain. The method of burial seems to have been secondary disposal, the bones being gathered together in a small pile and covered with jagged rocks forming a small mound within the cave. There were no artefacts, but small pieces of ochre were found on the cranium and femur. The ochre must have been brought from elsewhere, and may either have been added to the human remains or may reflect that the deceased had ochre on his hair and body, as recorded ethnographically by such explorers as Baudin and Peron. The cranium, mandible, a femur, fibula, tibia, some vertebrae and other fragmentary remains were found. The individual proved to be a man aged between about 25 and 35 years. The cranium is fully rounded, the face moderate in size and flat rather than prognathous, and there is no pronounced development of a brow ridge. Thorne concludes:

Robust skull from Cossack, Western Australia, about 6500 years old
(L. Freedman and M. Lofgren, with permission from Academic Press, London)

The King Island skeleton is morphologically gracile and shows none of the cranial features that distinguish the Kow Swamp people from the Keilor or other early Holocene gracile Australian human remains ... In many ways this individual mirrors the canial morphology of Keilor and thus expands the southerly range of the gracile group of late Pleistocene Australians. The King Island remains, with Keilor, suggest that the gracile skeletal form was the basis of the most southerly of the earliest Australians.

Peter Brown has recently suggested that King Island man may have been a woman, but Thorne's field measurements are confirmed by photographs with a scale, which demonstrate that the femur head is 49 millimeters in diameter, right outside the female range. The femur is also relatively short. Short, robust femurs with big heads are the classic cold-adapted limb proportions of populations from high latitudes or elevations, such as Eskimos and Sherpas. It seems that Tasmanian Aborigines too had become short and stocky by 14 000 years ago, an adaptation to conserve body heat in the roaring forties, where they had lived since some 35 000 years ago.

Gracile skull from Lake Mungo, New South Wales, compared with Kow Swamp 1.
Three views of WLH 1 cranium A: left lateral' B: frontal; C: vertical; D: Kow Swamp 1. The thin bone,
rounded forehead and lack of brow ridges of WLH 1 are characteristic of gracile early Australians.

These remains provide the oldest evidence of the physical form of the early Tasmanians, their custom of secondary disposal of the dead and use of chore probably in connection with burial rites.


A collection of 126 crania collected (by G.M. Black) in 1950 from the surface at Coobool Crossing on the Wakool River between Swan Hill and Deniliquin in the Murray Rifer Valley were studied by Brown. (The Murray Black collection has now been handed back to Aborigines of the region, and has been reburied.) No stratigraphic information was available, but bone from one skull, Coobool Creek 65, gave a uranium thorium date of 14 300 +- 1000 BP ( LLO-46). Comparison with other Murray Valley prehistoric populations clearly links the Coolbool Creek skulls with Kow Swamp, but no others. Brown concluded from this comparison that the evidence of the form and thickness of the cranium and tooth size suggests a single homogenous Pleistocene population, but Thorne stresses that Coolbool Creek was an undated surface site, which 'may result from burials spanning the last 20 000 years' rather than being homogeneous terminal Pleistocene population. One the basis of the Coolbool Creek findings and various comparisons of the so-called robust and gracile groups, Brown, Habgood and others have questioned the two population theory, but this is till supported , with some modifications by Thorne and Webb. (See 'The Origin  of the First Australians' Web site)

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