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Origins of Humankind
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See Milford H. Wolpoff's new book Race and Human Evolution.
No "Homo erectus" at Ngandong
Milford H. Wolpoff
Department of Anthropology
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1382, USA
January 4, 1997
Human remains from Ngandong, and the Sambungmachan skullcap, were described as "Homo erectus"1 because of important similarities that point to a specific relationship between them and the earlier Kabuh Indonesians2 also assigned to "Homo erectus". This relationship is almost certainly descent3 . One can argue that neither taxonomic assignment is appropriate because there is ample justification to question whether "Homo erectus" is a valid taxon or if it should be subsumed within Homo sapiens4 . But even if we assume its validity there are a number of reasons why Ngandong and Sambungmachan must be regarded as Homo sapiens and not "Homo erectus":
1. Ngandong is an especially well-studied sample6 and similarities between it and recent and living Native Australians are often described7 . Yet Swisher and colleagues claim recent and living Native Australians do not descend from Ngandong5 and that earlier Australian fossils such as WLH 50 are unrelated as well. They reject the contention that the Ngandong sample is Homo sapiens and argue against any relationship between Ngandong and Late Pleistocene Australians that does not involve cross-species gene flow. They assert the features shared by Ngandong and Australian fossils are plesiomorphic because they "are equally prevalent in fossil hominids from North Africa", citing a source8 for this conclusion that, however, does not address the issue of how Ngandong and fossil Native Aboriginal Australian crania might be related. In fact, a number of features link Ngandong with Australian fossil remains that are not generally found in Africans. A comparison of WLH 50 with Ngandong and Ngaloba (Laetoli 18), the most archaic-appearing of the African fossils of similar age and an alternative ancestor for WLH 50 according to the "Out of Africa" theory, found 12 features which linked WLH 50 with the Ngandong sample9 to the exclusion of Ngaloba. Not one feature could be found that uniquely linked WLH 50 and Ngaloba to the exclusion of Ngandong10 . It is surprising to find so many similarities in the absence of faces and very unlikely that so detailed a series of resemblances could be due to chance. Comparisons of WLH 50 with Ngandong and Qafzeh, another potential "African ancestor"11 for the Late Pleistocene Australian colonizers, indicate the same conclusion12 .
These similarities are especially troublesome for the "Homo erectus" attribution because even the earliest of the Late Pleistocene Australians are behaviorally modern. The physical remains of Australias earliest inhabitants are yet to be discovered. Yet their modernity is evident. They initiated continued crossings of formidable water barriers, too wide to see across, which implies complex technological and organizational skills13 .
2. Numerous similarities link the much earlier Indonesian hominids from Kabuh to recent and living Native Indigenous Australians14 and we can expect there were intermediates2 between some of these 750,000 year old hominids and some living populations. The claim1 that Ngandong cannot be such an intermediate because "Homo erectus" from Ngandong overlaps in time with Homo sapiens from Australia, is problematic. There is a problem, not only because no dated specimens have yet unequivocally demonstrated such an overlap15 , but because Ngandong could reflect a transitional anatomy for two different reasons: (1) because it is a direct ancestor, or (2) as a mutual descendent of a common ancestor with Native Australians. Both could be correct, but if either is correct Ngandong cannot be "Homo erectus".
The new dates cannot render the transitional interpretation "no longer chronologically plausible" as is claimed, unless one assumes that the Australians were a unique human line that became isolated from the rest of the world once Australia was colonized. Otherwise Indonesia could have continued contributing colonists descended from Ngandong, which would thereby be intermediate between Kabuh and some living Australians16 . What the dates render implausible is the possibility that Ngandong can be late, and be "Homo erectus" and be among the ancestors of Native Australians, because it would mean that "Homo erectus" in this region became Homo sapiens later than in other parts of the world - an unacceptable position17 . Since Swisher and colleagues insist on the taxonomy and the date, only the transitional nature of the sample is left for them to question. But I believe the weight of the data suggest the problem, and its solution, lies in the taxonomy.
3. Ngandong differs from its Kabuh ancestors and approaches the anatomy Homo sapiens elsewhere in many ways. For instance it has significant supraorbital torus reduction (comparing like sexes, the torus is smaller than the Kabuh specimens, and a depression over the nose results in its distinct separation into right and left sides). The frontal bone is markedly broader, especially across the frontal lobes (behind the orbits, where the postorbital construction is less). The articular eminence for the mandible is projecting and well defined. The occipital plane of the occipital bone is markedly expanded while the nuchal muscle attachment area is decreased by some 30%18 . But most importantly the relationship can be seen in brain size. The Ngandong sample has a brain size considerably expanded over the Kabuh hominids, not just within the Native Aboriginal Australian range but closely approaching the mean.
These common changes would have to be explained by parallelism if "Homo erectus" persisted on Java while Homo sapiens was evolving the same way in other places. One complex parallelism is possible but combined they pose a statistical impossibility that this interpretation cannot overcome.
In the assessment of Ngandong as "Homo erectus", regional features have been confused with traits that are mistakenly taken to indicate evolutionary grade. For instance, thickened supraorbital tori divided from a flat frontal squama by a weak sulcus characterize many of the Kabuh hominids and Ngandong specimens. However this does not mean Ngandong is plesiomorphic, because the same particular frontal bone anatomy is found continuously throughout the Australasian fossil record20 and is different from the frontal bone anatomy common in other areas. Recent Native Aboriginal Australians with this anatomy are not more plesiomorphic than other recent human populations. Explaining anatomical similarities such as these by cross-species gene flow raises the specter that some human populations can be interpreted to differ from others because they have more genes from an extinct primitive human species.
I do not believe this is correct. WLH 50 and other Australian fossils are modern humans. The bases for this assertion are both their resemblance to more recent Native Australians21 and where they died. The numerous similarities of these modern human crania to the Ngandong crania, in turn, combine with other comparisons of Ngandong and Native aboriginal Australians to suggest that the Ngandong specimens are directly ancestral to the modern humans of this region in the same sense that any of the regional Pleistocene predecessors of modern populations are; that is, as one of several ancestral populations. Ngandong has a similar relationship to later Australians that, for instance, the Klasies remains have to Pleistocene South Africans or Skhul and Qafzeh remains have to later Levantines. Ngandong, by these criteria, cannot be "Homo erectus".