Ancient voyage of discovery

New research suggests Australian aboriginals may have migrated to the Americas 14,000 years ago. David Keys reports
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The Independent Online
Walter Neves keeps 40 skulls belonging to the world's most ancient Aborigines in his office. They are all stored neatly in his computer. But it is not the hi-tech, 3D storage of aboriginal human remains that is causing ripples. It is the fact that all the skulls come not from Australia but from South America.

For Dr Neves, Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, believes that America was discovered not by Columbus or the Vikings, or even by the ancestors of today's American Indians, but by Australian-style Aborigines.

His research strongly suggests that the first Americans were Australoid colonists - not Mongoloid peoples, as has always been assumed.

By analysing the multi-dimensional images on his computer screen and comparing hundreds of ancient skulls from all over the world, Dr Neves has found the only exact match for his early South American examples are ancient skulls from Australia. The morphologies are identical. "We were very surprised by what we found," he says.

Dr Neves points out that before East and South-east Asia were taken over by the ancestors of today's Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Mongoloid peoples, the region was inhabited by peoples similar to the Australian Aborigines. Ancient aboriginal-type skulls have been found in China and Korea. He believes that Australia and adjacent islands are merely the last surviving territory of a once-vast aboriginal homeland that covered much of East and South-east Asia.

And he is convinced it was aboriginal colonists from this "Greater Australia" who first set foot in the New World and became the first Americans.

The migration may well have been sparked off by a conflict between the aboriginal population of East Asia and the expanding Mongoloid peoples.

Mongoloid peoples probably developed somewhere in the ultra-cold wastes of central Siberia, perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. Then, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, they began to expand their territory at the expense of early Australoid peoples.

Dr Neves suspects that this expansion may have driven the Aborigines into the New World.

Mongoloid tribes also entered the Americas later, and he believes these later arrivals, who became the American Indians, drove the Aborigines into the least desirable areas, where the majority died out. Most of his American aboriginal skulls date from 14,000 to 10,000 years ago. After that date, most ancient American skulls are Mongoloid in type.

In a remote area of central Brazil, in the state of Minas Gerais, Dr Neves is excavating caves and rock shelters in the hope of finding fresh material.

Brazilian researchers are also combing the world's museums for ancient American skulls. So far Dr Neves has tracked down material in Scandinavia, Britain and the United States.

But it is among living peoples that Dr Neves may find the most exciting evidence that Aborigines were the first discoverers of America. In the southern part of South America are two ethnic groups that may well be the last survivors of the first Americans. In southern Brazil, Dr Neves suspects that the Je Indians still preserve some aboriginal traits - both physically and linguistically. And in southern Argentina and Chile, he believes the last pure American Aborigine - a Tierra del Fuego Indian - died just 30 years ago, although mixed-race Tierra del Fuego people still survive, preserving an ethnic heritage of probable Australoid origin.

Australia's Aborigines - and their near relatives, the Melanesians - may now not be alone as the sole survivors of the Australoid race.

The aboriginal achievement is breathtaking in more ways than one. Some 60,000 years ago - more than 20,000 years before humans reached Europe - Australoid people started long-distance sea travel, using primitive boats to make what was then an 80-mile voyage to the island continent of Australia.

The evidence collected by Dr Neves suggests that they had reached the Americas by at least 14,000 years ago.

The major remaining question, then, is how did they enter the Americas? Australoid peoples were not adapted to cold weather like their putative Mongoloid rivals and would have found it difficult to cross over into the New World via what is now the Bering Strait - the route that the ancestors of the Americans Indians are believed to have taken. The Australoid colonists may have used their maritime skill and experience to take a more southerly route - island-hopping all the way from East Asia to North America.

It is possible to travel from Malaysia, New Guinea or Australia all the way to the North American mainland, arriving in Alaska at a relatively low latitude (equivalent to central England), by island-hopping. Using the Indonesian, Philippine, Ryuku, Japanese, Kuril and Aleutian island chains and archipelagoes, the 4,000-mile journey can still be undertaken with no single sea voyage of more than 120 miles.

The proposal that Australian-style Aborigines discovered America is likely to prove controversial.

But it is already gaining some tentative academic support in both the United States and Australia. "It is an exciting new theory with interesting support not just from fossil material but also from living peoples in southern South America," said Dr Alan Thorne, an anthropologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. An early Australoid migration to America is "a reasonable possibility", he says.