Mungo Man could be African: scientists

Wednesday, January 10, 2001

By Richard Macey

Scientists expressed caution yesterday over claims by Australian researchers that cast doubt over the theory that modern man emerged from Africa.

Dr Alan Thorne, an anthropologist with the Australian National University, scored headlines around the globe with findings suggesting that modern humans evolved everywhere.

His claims are based on DNA recovered from the skeleton of Mungo Man, who lived and died about 60,000 years ago near South Australia's Lake Mungo.

That makes the DNA about 32,000 years older than any human DNA found before.

Mungo Man, said to have been physically similar to people living today, had one significant difference. Within his DNA, the scientists found a gene that Dr Thorne described as "unlike any alive today".

The scientists argue that had Mungo Man descended from modern humans flowing out of Africa, his genetic line should have also flowed on, rather than become extinct.

They believe the discovery backs the theory of "regional continuity" that says modern man evolved around the world as people interbred.

They argue that Mungo Man's ancient gene, responsible for supplying energy to the brain, probably became extinct as his descendants mingled with new arrivals..

Scientists around the world lauded the team's success in extracting 60,000-year-old DNA.

But Dr Peter Underhill from California's Stanford University said Mungo Man's ancestors "could have originated in Africa".

"It doesn't mean out of Africa is kaput," he said. "The problem with such ancient DNA is such specimens are few and far between ... it would be nice to see it reproduced independently elsewhere.''

The Australian Museum's head of evolutionary biology, Dr Don Colgan, said there could be another theory on why Mungo Man's gene had become extinct: "Maybe if you looked hard you might find it. It's still one individual."