The BBC Horizon Documentary: Out of Asia.

Reviewed by Dr. Andrew Chamberlain.

Lest anyone be complacent about the future of strong, internationally renowned academic research centres for archaeology, consider the recent fate of the Division of Archaeology and Natural History at the Australian National University (ANU). As a consequence of a 14% cut in government funding to ANU, the Division of Archaeology was summarily closed this year and its expertise dispersed, despite its strong international reputation for research into the prehistory of the indigenous peoples of Australasia. In Out of Asia Rhys Jones, an archaeology professor from ANU, states that by substantiating the great antiquity of aboriginal occupancy of the Australian landmass, archaeologists have proved to be massive allies for the political emancipation of the aboriginals (a fact that is unlikely to have been ignored by the Australian government in its recent funding decisions). But that is politics and Out of Asia prefers to follow the well-trodden route of pitting academic personalities against each other in the evaluation of competing claims for the antiquity of humans: a case of 'never mind the politics, feel the science'. It was noticeable that nearly all of the experts whose views were solicited for this programme were white males with a propensity for driving fast 4x4s. In contrast, when the traditional Aboriginal custodians of the archaeological sites were filmed their English was deemed so unintelligible that their limited contribution to the programme was, amazingly, subtitled.

As with many media treatments of Palaeolithic archaeology the complex arguments boiled down to a question of who migrated where and when. The claims of Richard Fullagar and Paul Tacon (Australian Museum, Sydney) for an arrival date of hominids at the site of Jinmium in northern Australia as early as 120,000 years ago was subjected to critical appraisal by Rhys Jones and other Australian archaeologists and by our own venerable palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer, whose 'Out-of-Africa' theory would be compromised if modern humans had arrived in Australia almost before they had supposedly evolved in Africa. But what if the earliest Australians were Homo erectus, not Homo sapiens? Cue the proponents of the Regional 'Continuity' theory, in which it is argued that regional populations of Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens on a local basis, separately in Africa, Europe and Asia. At first this seemed merely an excuse for the film crew to up sticks and book into hotels in Indonesia, but the scientific argument, presented by Alan Thorne (ANU), is that the some of the earliest Australian hominids, for example those from Lake Mungo, show special similarities with the lower Pleistocene hominids from Java which are conventionally attributed to Homo erectus. All this is rather old hat for anyone who has been following the 'Origins-of-Modern-Humans' debate, but the interesting part of the programme for me was when Mike Morwood (University of New England, Armidale) investigated some of the claims for finds of lithic artefacts on Flores Island, one of the chain of islands that act as stepping stones between southeast Asia and the northern coast of Australia. Morwood was taken by locals to the site where the worked stone tools had been found by an amateur archaeologist in the 1950s and fission track dating of volcanic layers at the site confirmed that the tools were about 1 million years old. The interesting point is that Flores was never connected to the mainland, requiring a 20km sea crossing even at times of low sea level during the last Ice Age, so the migrating hominids would have needed planning, logistics and perhaps language. This is more than most anthropologists are willing to grant to our erectus cousins.

There is much more evidence in the programme that I haven't mentioned, including the mysterious layers of ash in deep sea cores that are suggestive of deliberate firing of the vegetation on the Australian mainland up to 150,000 years ago, not to mention the betaglobin genes of the Oxfordshire villagers (don't ask, just watch the tape if you really want to know). This makes the programme entertaining for the specialist but must be confusing for the lay audience, towards whom the programme is principally aimed. Overall the programme was a pastiche, built around interviews with articulate archaeologists and anthropologists, and stitched together with the usual shots of jeeps being driven through the deepest wash-outs available. But it was fun to watch, if very much in the mainstream genre of television archaeology.

Dr. Andrew Chamberlain is Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Archaeology & Prehistory at the University of Sheffield. He has research interests in human evolution, palaeodemography and biological anthropology.

© Andrew Chamberlain 1997

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