ref: Before Farming 2010/3 article 4

Guest editorial
A man on the rim

The papers in this and the following issue of Before Farming are dedicated to the palaeoanthropologist and archaeologist Alan Thorne, whose contributions to palaeoanthropology in Australia and internationally have been substantial and enduring. Alan’s ideas have been central to interpretations of Aboriginal Australian origins for more than 40 years. He was a major architect of one of the competing theories about the global origins of modern humans, a mentor to two generations of Australian postgraduate students and academics, a diplomat and builder of bridges between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, and an internationally recognised
science communicator.

Alan started his career as a journalist, then lectured in human anatomy in the Medical School at Sydney University, where he began his research into Australian archaeology and human evolution. He studied for his PhD under Neil Macintosh at the University of Sydney and was influenced by his ideas with respect to the Pleistocene origins of Aboriginal Australians. He spent his career, for example, developing Macintosh’s view that two Pleistocene populations had existed in Australia during that epoch. During his PhD research at Kow Swamp in Victoria he led a team that excavated human skeletal remains, some dating from the Pleistocene. In doing so, he provided Australian anthropology with the first sample of human remains from well understood contexts (provenience and dating). This marked a major shift in scientific debate about the origins of indigenous Australians, for the first time incorporating reliable fossil data. Following discovery of human remains at Lake Mungo in the late 1960s by Jim Bowler, Alan began a long association with the Willandra Lakes region and its traditional owners and their ancestors. This relationship resulted in important shifts in the way anthropologists worked within indigenous communities, aided greatly by the return by Alan of the ‘Mungo Lady’ to the local community for safekeeping. Scientifically, Alan’s research on the Willandra human remains has included pioneering collaborative dating studies with Rainer Grün and others as well as ancient-DNA sequencing work led by Greg Adcock.

Alan’s observations and hypothesising about the morphology, intra-population variation and affinities of fossil human remains led him, Milford Wolpoff and Wu Xinzhi to develop the global Multiregionalism model. It is a hypothesis that extended and reformulated a view traceable to the first half of the 20th century, that the evolution of the Australasians was at least in part traceable to the Lower Pleistocene hominins of Indonesia. This model has remained a major source of inquiry and discussion for over 30 years. Fieldwork took him to many parts of Australia, throughout southeast Asia, to China, Japan, South Africa, Europe, the Americas and many other places. He established many collaborations and friendships with researchers across the world, but especially so in east Asia, where he was, for example, a member of the first Australian scientific party to visit China in 1973. Over four decades, he trained two generations and inspired many more postgraduate students, academics and archaeologists. Among the PhD students he supervised are Peter Brown, Stephen Webb, Colin Pardoe and Darren Curnoe, all of whom have made important contributions to Australian palaeoanthropology in their own right. Alan’s training and mentoring saw a blossoming of Australian palaeoanthropology and helped it to develop the strong international reputation it enjoys today.

His commitment to and passion for science communication led him and Bob Raymond to make the award winning 11 part television series Man on the Rim, inspiring a new generation of anthropologists and archaeologists. His flair for film was also seen in his highly successful presentation of Film Australia’s The Entombed Warriors, about the terracotta horses and soldiers buried with China’s first emperor. Of Alan’s 67 scientific papers, eight have been reprinted in special volumes. He has also produced two books, including Man on the Rim. He has featured in many other films as well as in television news and the print media for a number of decades.

He was or still is a member of nine learned societies, including the Australian Academy of the Humanities, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1994. That same year, he received the inaugural Riversleigh Medal for contribution to Australian Palaeoanthropology. Alan was a consultant to the Australian Museum, Sydney and to
the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and also served on numerous advisory committees and editorial boards. From 1979 to 1982, he was co-editor of Australian Archaeology.

This series of papers is intended as an expression of respect, admiration and affection from his friends, collaborators, students and colleagues to celebrate a remarkable career.

Darren Curnoe
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Paul SC Taçon
Griffith University, Queensland, Australia


May 2011

 

© Western Academic & Specialist Press Ltd 2010