A skull uncovered near Taree, New South Wales, is thought to date back to the 1600s. (Credit: Daniel Cummins)

Ancient skull from NSW could rewrite history

  • BY AAP with AG staff |
  • July 02, 2013

A skull found in NSW may belong to a white man born in 1650 – long before the first arrival of Captain Cook.

THE CENTURIES-OLD SKULL of a white man found in New South Wales is raising questions about whether Captain James Cook really was the first European to land on Australia's east coast.

The skull was found near Taree in the state's north in late 2011, and police initially prepared themselves for a gruesome murder investigation.

But scientific testing has revealed that the skull is much older than expected, possibly having belonged to a white man born around 1650, well before Englishman Cook reached the eastern seaboard on the HMB Endeavour in 1770.

Skull found near Taree from 17th century

Dr Stewart Fallon, a researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra, carbon-dated the skull using collagen from the bone and enamel from a tooth. Stewart says he was shocked at the age of the relic.

"We didn't know know how old this one was, we assumed at first that it was going to be a very young sample," he says.

"At first we weren't really thinking about people coming to Australia until we started to look at the dates and say, 'Oh, that's becoming intriguing'."

Stewart says the test used is quite accurate for dates after 1950, but between 1650 and 1900, dating can become somewhat difficult. The two samples taken from the skull yielded different dates, though both were within the error range.

"Using [the dates] together we can do some modelling as to what we expect the calendar age to be," he says. "We have about an 80 per cent probability that the person was born somewhere around the 1650s and died somewhere between 1660 and 1700."

European man died before Cook's arrival

Melbourne-based archaeologist Adam Ford says other factors may be relevant in finding the origin of the skull. "Before we rewrite the history of European settlement we have to consider a number of issues, particularly the circumstances of the discovery."

"The fact the skull is in good condition and was found alone could easily point to it coming from a private collection, and skulls were very popular with collectors in the 19th century," Adam says.

There is also the possibility that the skull was left deliberately, as happened in the early 1900s with the UK's 'Piltdown Man' – the most famous archaeological hoax in history. Stewart told Australian Geographic a hoax is possible, adding that: "We didn't find the skull, the NSW police removed the skull from the water, so I don't really know more than that."

Nevertheless, Cassie Mercer, editor of Australia And New Zealand Inside History, says that if verified, the skull "could be an incredible find" .

"It's a very exciting find because it could open up a whole lot of avenues of history that we haven't been able to explore before," she says.

Dutch explorers made the earliest European landings in Cape York, in Australia's far north, and the country's west in the 1600s. These expeditions aren't believed to have reached the east coast.

Ancient coins could redraft Australian history
More stories on Australian history
DNA confirms Ned Kelly's remains
Images of Australia: Early 1900s
On this day in history: Australia's biggest gold robbery
How plague almost demolished historic Sydney
First Fleet logs reveal climate patterns
On this day: Captain James Cook sets sail
Voyage of Endeavour: Two centuries on
MAP: Take a tour of the Endeavour
Building history: The Endeavour replica
Cooktown: Place of endeavour
Earliest convict arrivals recorded online
Australian Geographic's 100 Aussie icons