Borneo's "Deep Skull" Rewrites History Of Human Evolution

Niah Cave, where the Deep Skull was originally found. Selva Rajan Tamil Selvan/Shutterstock
Robin Andrews 28 Jun 2016, 11:42

Back in 1958, diggers in the so-called “Hell Trench” at the western end of the Niah Cave in Borneo uncovered what was undeniably a human skull. At the time, the oldest dated example of a modern human came from a 33,000-year-old male, and researchers incorrectly thought that Homo sapiens directly descended from Homo neanderthalensis in Europe.

This find, called "Deep Skull," rocked the scientific world when it was found to belong to a human that pre-dated the previous example by 4,000 years, meaning that modern humans existed alongside Neanderthals, at least on this particular archipelago. Today, many think that this human is related to the Indigenous Australians, but a new study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution disagrees.

This fresh piece of research involved the most complex and detailed analysis on the skull to date. Comparing the Deep Skull’s intricate features to those of different skulls of different populations in and around the region, it has been concluded that it likely came from a group of people that were closely related to the current, native populations of Borneo itself.

This new information suggests that the early population of humans that landed on Borneo have remained morphologically consistent for tens of thousands of years. “Our analysis overturns long-held views about the early history of this region,” lead researcher Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales, said in a statement.

Back in 1960, prominent British anthropologist Don Brothwell concluded that the Deep Skull belonged to an adolescent male and represented a group of humans either directly ancestral to or closely related to Indigenous Australians, most likely Tasmanians. These researchers have concluded that not only was this assessment invalid, but that the skull didn’t even belong to a teenage boy. Instead, they suggest that it probably belonged to an older woman.

The Deep Skull has long been held as a key piece of evidence for a migration hypothesis known as the “two-layer” model: In this scenario, South-East Asia was previously thought to have been colonized by both Indigenous Australians and those from New Guinea, before being replaced by farmers from southern China.

“Brothwell’s ideas have been highly influential and stood largely untested, so we wanted to see whether they might be correct after almost six decades,” Curnoe added.

Not only does this new analysis suggest the early influx of Indigenous Australians to Borneo may be more fiction than fact, but it also implies that the Indigenous Borneans were not replaced on a genetic level by migrating farmers spreading advanced agricultural techniques around 3,000 years ago. Rather, it appears that they merely adopted it, and did not greatly widen their genetic population pool.

Image in text: Fragments of the 37,000-year-old Deep Skull. Darren Curnoe

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