12 September 2001

Dr Jian-xin Zhao has developed a ground-breaking geological dating technique, allowing new insights into human origins and the history of climate change.

Dr Zhao, from the School of Physical Sciences, has been using the decay rate of uranium atoms to estimate geological dates with considerable accuracy.
His work has implications for many disciplines.

One of Dr Zhao's most publicised findings involved the dating of an ancient human-like fossil known as Nanjing Man.

By analysing the uranium decay in a calcite flowstone layer just above the fossil bed within a cave, Dr Zhao was able to estimate the human-like remains were at least 620,000 years old - considerably older than previously thought.

The finding is consistent with the 'multi-regional' evolutionary model that argues modern Asian populations evolved directly from Asian Homo Erectus, rather than evolving from populations out of Africa.

'Nanjing Man was discovered in 1993, but until recently there had been no reliable dating of the fossil,' he said.

'Chronology of many similar sites had previously been determined by dating fossil bones, teeth and burnt flints.

However the reliability of these methods is commonly compromised - it's a bit like using an old-fashioned telescope to observe objects in deep space.

'The fact that the remains lay directly below clean calcite flowstone presented a wonderful opportunity to apply our geological dating method, using the accumulation of thorium-230 from decay of uranium-238.

'Because China has not developed the dating techniques, the analysis had to be carried out at the Radiogenic Isotope Geochemistry Laboratory at The University of Queensland.'

Coincidentally, Dr Zhao was an undergraduate at Nanjing University in the early 1980s, but was made aware of the important fossil discovery during a field trip to China five years ago.

'The next stage of my research is to date human fossils in the Guangxi Province in south-west China - the geological conditions, characterised by numerous karst caves, are perfect for this geological dating technique,' he said.

Dr Zhao plans to use the method to establish a reliable chronological framework for anatomically modern H. sapiens - the immediate ancestor of modern human beings - in China, and attempt to resolve the pronounced controversy on human origins.

His preliminary results suggest that modern H. sapiens fossils in China are much older than previously thought, which may provide considerable evidence for the multi-regional evolution model.

Dr Zhao has also analysed radioactive decay in a stalagmite from a cave in Tasmania to gain the first high-precision climatic record of the Southern Hemisphere.

This work has implications for understanding global warming.

'My research suggests that it has been 11,500 years since the last ice-age, and the warm and wet period prior to that lasted only 7000 years,' he said.

'Therefore I would argue that an unstable climatic phase leading to the next ice-age is long overdue.'

With his $70,000 research excellence award, Dr Zhao plans to date synchronous rapid global climatic oscillations during the last glacial period and obtain new constraints on climatic connections between east Asian and northern Australian monsoon regimes.

This study will enable a better understanding of the mechanisms driving climate change and help the assessment of the anthropogenic impact on current climate and prediction of future climate trend and catastrophic climatic events.

The results will improve our knowledge of the east Asian and Australian monsoon activity and the long-term rainfall variation in Australia that is vital to Australia's sustainable socio-economic planning.

Dr Zhao came to Australia in 1987 on an Overseas Study Scholarship. He completed a masters degree at Adelaide University and PhD at the Australian National University before joining the Earth Sciences Department at The University of Queensland in 1995.

He was awarded a three-year Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship in 1995, followed by a five-year Australian Research/QE II Fellowship by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in 1998, and is an honorary research fellow at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Academic Sinica.

Media: For more details about the research of the nine winners contact Peter McCutcheon (07 3365 1088 or 0413 380012) or Jan King (07 3365 1120 or 0413 601 248)