The Ancient Lake Bed that Rewrote Human History

  • A lunette stands mountain-like, while a nearby tree takes what it can from the parched environment.

    Up to 30,000 years ago, this corner of south-eastern Australia was a paradise. Fish swam in deep freshwater lakes, giant versions of kangaroos and flightless birds grazed around the lush surrounding vegetation, and in sheltered camps people lived peaceful lives without want. Perhaps children played, splashing about in the water at the lake’s edge, while adults chatted about the day’s hunt and cooked their evening meal on open fires.

  • Lunettes, crescent shaped sand dunes, known as the “Walls of China”

    Then, 16,000 years ago, the lakes dried up and became the arid land of dunes and scrubby bush it is today. Gone are the fish and large mammals that lived there. Only the people, the aboriginal Paakantji, the Mutthi Mutthi and the Ngiyampaa tribes of the region remain. The place is now known as Lake Mungo National Park, a World Heritage Park that holds a very special place in human history.

  • Only the hardiest of vegetation survives the arid present-day conditions.

    It was here at Lake Mungo that Mungo Man, the oldest human skeleton outside of Africa, and Mungo Lady, whose remains bear one of the earliest examples of ritual cremation anywhere on Earth, were discovered. Since they were found (in 1974 and 1969 respectively) they have been used to amass a wealth of information about Australia’s earliest inhabitants and prehistoric peoples in general.

  • Wind, rain and sand have sculptured the lunettes into artistic forms.

    One of the most important results to come out of the discovery of Mungo Man is the revising of the date aborigines were thought to have arrived in Australia by at least 30,000 years. As well as that, the remains have prompted debate on prehistoric migration patterns and even the evolution of mankind as a whole. The controversy continues as to whether Mungo Man and Mungo Lady are proof of a single migration to Australia, or if they constitute evidence for ancestors of today’s aborigines coming over in different waves.

  • Wave patterns in the sand mimic the long departed lake waters.

    Carbon dating puts the the time of Mungo Lady’s death at about 26,000 years ago, toward the end of Lake Mungo’s most fertile period. At the time of her burial, she was obviously someone deserving special attention. Her remains were cremated, the remaining bones crushed and burnt a second time. The care and effort put into her burial gives us some perspective on the status of aboriginal women in her era.

  • Red tinted sands of the long dry Lake Mungo

    Mungo Man was about 50 years old when he died, a very respectable age for that time. He was also tall — am estimated 6ft 5in. We also know he was plagued with arthritis, which may have been the result of repeatedly throwing spears during hunting. After carefully placing his body in its grave, Mungo Man was sprinkled with ochre, the first known incidence of such ritual burial in the world. The dating of his bones remains controversial, but the consensus is that his death occurred around 40,000 years ago.

  • Each lunette contains three layers of sediment, each deposited during different eras of the lake’s life.

    Many layers cover the Lake Mungo area, dating back to sediments deposited 100,000 years ago. The layer of the most archaeological interest is called the Mungo layer, laid down between 25,000 and 50,000 years ago. This layer held Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, as well as tools, fireplaces and the most numerous Pleistocene (Ice Age) footprints found anywhere. The prints are remarkably well preserved and were made by a group of adults, teenagers and children walking across what was then soft claypan. A family on the move, perhaps?

  • Many visitors to the park report a ‘magical’ feeling there, perhaps partly brought on by the surreal landscape.

    During the peak of human habitation, Lake Mungo was only one of a series of lakes along what is now known as Willandra Creek. Lake Mungo itself was over 20 kilometers long, 10 wide and 15 meters deep. Mussel shells and fish bones found in ancient middens (or rubbish heaps) around the lake are testament to the abundance of life it contained and supported.

  • A piece of driftwood is lone testament to the deep waters that covered this area long ago.

    It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like back then when the lakes were full. Today the land is arid, the most distinctive feature its lunettes — semi-circular fixed dunes that stretch along the eastern side of the dried lake. Many years ago Chinese shepherds in the area named these the “Walls of China” and the name has stuck.

  • A solitary tree grows out of a lunette and reaches for the sky.

    Thousands of years of erosion have carved the lunettes into interesting shapes, and winds blowing loose sand have created mini dunes behind them. It is an eerie place, isolated from the closest small town by 75 km. The atmosphere is strong, sometimes described as otherworldly. Visitors are encouraged to take knowledgeable guides with them when visiting, so as not to miss any of the natural and archaeological wonders of a place with such a long continuous human history.

  • Looking back towards the flat dry pan that was once a lake teeming with life

    Care of the land is shared between government, conservation organisations and elders from the original tribal occupiers of the area. The preservation of this World Heritage Park is being taken very seriously, in light of its historical importance to both Australia and the rest of the world. Archaeology here continues, and more surprising finds may yet be discovered in this ancient lake bed.

  • Wildflowers add some colour to a landscape molded over millions of years.

    Mungo Lady lies in a vault requiring two sets of keys for access. One set is held by tribal elders, one by scientists. Mungo Man is still being studied at the Australian National University. Aboriginal leaders hope in time to give both Mungo Man and Mungo Lady traditional re-burials in the place where they lived and died so many thousands of years ago.

    Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Yohani Kamarudin
Yohani Kamarudin
Scribol Staff
Anthropology and History