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Thorne, Alan Gordon (1939–2012)

Alan Thorne was an anthropologist who provoked heated academic debate in 2001 when he published a paper disputing the widely held theory that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago before spreading across the world and out-competing ''archaic'' peoples such as Neanderthals and Homo erectus, who had migrated from Africa before them.

Thorne led a team of researchers which examined bone samples taken from a skeleton known as Mungo Man, which had been found on the shores of Lake Mungo in south-western NSW in 1974. State-of-the-art dating tests carried out in 1999 suggested that the man lived between 56,000 and 68,000 years ago.

Thorne claimed to have extracted DNA from the bone samples which, under analysis, turned out to be different from any living human being and different from any fossil human remains found in Africa. Yet Mungo Man, who studies determined was 170 centimetres tall and with an upright, slender build, was anatomically a modern Homo sapiens, resembling an Aborigine living today.

In a paper published in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Thorne and his colleagues argued that their findings were inconsistent with the Out of Africa theory, not only because the genetic material was unknown in Africa but also because, if this particular example of Homo sapiens had arrived in NSW from Africa about 60,000 years ago (the Out of Africa theory holds that Homo sapiens left Africa between 60,000 and 125,000 years ago), he would have had to move faster than many palaeontologists believe was possible.

Instead, Thorne supported an alternative theory called ''regional continuity'', which agrees with the Out of Africa theory that archaic people began migrating from Africa about 2 million years ago, but postulates that instead of being supplanted by new, improved humans who went on to colonise the planet, the different waves of proto-humans continued, together, down the same evolutionary path, evolving into Homo sapiens in many different parts of the world through interbreeding.

Some populations became isolated for periods of time, developing in different directions. However, through continuous interbreeding, genetic drift and selection, adaptations that were an advantage anywhere on earth would spread, keeping the development of the species in the same overall direction while maintaining adaptations to regional factors.

Fundamental to the argument was the ability of such hominids to reproduce with a member of the opposite sex from any of the different hominid races.

But as Thorne observed: ''Everybody is able to breed with everybody else in the world, so any change will spread through a population.'' In his scenario, Mungo Man's ancestors probably evolved into human beings like us in Asia, from where they gradually migrated to Australia, where their genetic lineage became a dead end.

Thorne's paper provoked vigorous debate. Some critics argued he could not possibly have extracted DNA from such an old skeleton (previously, the oldest reliably dated human DNA came from a European skeleton about 28,000 years old), and others disputed the dating results. In 2003, another group of Australian scientists claimed that the skeleton was more like 43,000 years old.

While the Out of Africa theory remains the most generally accepted, based on the fossil evidence, more recent DNA research has led to many scientists accepting that some interbreeding between early Homo sapiens and other protohuman species probably took place, though the input of genes from other species is thought to be small.

Alan Gordon Thorne was born on March 1, 1939, and worked first as a journalist, later taking a PhD under the anthropologist Neil Macintosh at the University of Sydney. He went on to become a lecturer in human anatomy at the university and eventually moved to the Australian National University as a professor of biology and human anatomy.

Thorne first became involved in the Lake Mungo excavations under the archaeologist Jim Bowler in 1969, reconstructing the remains of a skeleton called LM1— also known as Mungo Lady. Five years later he reconstructed Mungo Man.

Though the skeletons were then dated at between 28,000 and 34,000 years old, during his reconstruction of Mungo Lady, Thorne found the bones (the skull in particular) to be thin and frail — similar to the bones of humans today. Other Australian hominid specimens from the same period had been thick-skulled. It was this discovery that first led him to question the Out of Africa model of human development.

From 1968 to 1972 Thorne led excavations at a burial ground at Kow Swamp in Victoria's central Murray Valley, finding 22 sets of hominid remains — some of them dating to the Pleistocene era. Again, reconstruction showed that they were structurally similar to modern humans, a finding which Thorne took as further evidence for regional continuity. Alan Thorne is survived by his wife, Maggie, and a son and daughter.

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'Thorne, Alan Gordon (1939–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 5 October 2022.

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