Lake Mungo – Australia

23rd April 2017

Lake Mungo is one of a series of interconnected, dry, inland lakes in the heritage listed Willandra Lakes Region, located in south-eastern Australia, in the south western area of New South Wales. The lake area including the lunette (dune) is part of the Mungo National Park while the archaeological site referenced as Lake Mungo is denoted as the south west division of the Mungo Lunette. This area is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Australia (see figure 1: A map showing the location of Lake Mungo). The Mungo area is of huge archaeological significance and has been the center of many important archaeological findings. The interpretation of these findings has influenced not only entire generations of archaeological thinking and academia, but has also been crucial in the public understanding of Australia’s human past (Hiscock, 2008:5).

hiscock1
Figure 1: A map showing the location of Lake Mungo in relation to greater and modern Australia (Hiscock, 2008:23)

Since the first initial surveys of the area a number of important finds have been uncovered at this site. These include, food debris, artefacts, and fire places, all well preserved in the shore clay and sands around the lake area. Perhaps though, the most notable of the many finds made at this site, was the discovery and authentication of fossilized human remains, in the form of Mungo Man (also referred to as WLH3, LM3). Bowler recounts that the initial excavation phase took place following a survey he “conducted of the stratigraphy and Quaternary geology of dry lakes in western New South Wales, [during which he] … recorded evidence of human occupation on ancient Quaternary strandlines” (Bowler et al. 1970:39). Bowler also chronicles that on a subsequent exploration of the Willandra Lakes area, that took place in March of I969, he was accompanied by a team of earth scientists from Canberra. This particular team also included four archaeologists, Allen, Jones, Key and Mulvaney. He writes of their experience saying that,

On inspection of the bone deposit at the Mungo site, the archaeologists of the party immediately suggested their human origin, an identification which was later confirmed by John Calaby, CSIRO, Canberra, and A. G. Thorne. During a later survey of the area, a carbonate encrusted fragment of a second cranium was found lying on the deflation surface approximately 1 km. west of the burial. Since the adjacent lake and the stratigraphic unit which contained the burial are named after the nearby grazing property, Mungo Station, we have called these the Mungo skeletons (Bowler et al. 1970:43-44)

Bowler et al. (1970:39) recorded that the ”radiocarbon dates from this site have established these as the most ancient human bones from a stratigraphically controlled site yet dated in Australia”, and one of the earliest recorded burials known anywhere. The WLH3 skeletal remains rose to notoriety following an inaccurate age estimate provided by researchers as exceeding 62,000±2,000 years (Thorn et al. 1999). It was important to note that this given age was in the vicinity of 20,000 years older than previously recorded projections for the sedimentary context in which the remains were located (Bowler, 1998; Bowler & Price, 1998; cited in Gilespie & Roberts 2000:727). Also of equal importance is the remains of Mungo Lady (also referred to as WLH1, LM1, ANU-618), the oldest human remains to be found anywhere in the world that had been ritually cremated. Radio-carbon dating of bone fragments (ANU-618A) recovered from the burial presented an age of around 20,000 years (Bowler et al. 1972 cited in Gilespie 1998:172). Richard Gillespie (1998:174) suggests that WLH1 is more likely nearer 17,000 years in age, though some such as Renfew and Bahn (2012:544) assert a date of 26,000 years. The most recent, generally accepted sequence of dating which used a series of 25 optical ages, relate that the burials of WLH1 and WLH3 occurred around the same time, 40,000 +/- 2,000 years ago. Evidence also sets out the belief that humans had arrived and settled in the area of Lake Mungo between 46,000-50,000 years ago. This would establish habitation dates similar to, or soon after, the initial settlement of northern and Western Australia (Bowler et al. 2003:837). Bowler makes the claim that “this new chronology corrects previous estimates for human burials at this important site and provides a new picture of Homo sapiens adapting to deteriorating climate in the worlds driest inhabited continent (Bowler et al. 2003:837)

 hiscock2
Figure 2: Stratigraphic section through the Lake Mungo Lunette (Hiscock, 2008:38)

As a result of its importance, reflection and research into the discoveries made at the Lake Mungo site has continued to be a focal point for discourse into early inhabitation of the region. Hiscock (2008:38) details that “the story of the lake can be reconstructed from the sequence of strata because the characteristics of sediments reflect the environmental conditions in which they accumulated” (see figure 2). Bowler adds to this by relating that the entire understanding of the burial site is founded on being able to accurately date the fluctuations in the cycles and intervals of the lakes water levels, since it was these fluctuations that produced “signatures in shoreline sedimentary-facies” (Bowler & Magee 2000:719). Such studies also open further questions in regard to the changing patterns of land use and the migration of not only animals but also of human inhabitants of the time. Fitzsimmons et al. (2014:349) record that in the observance of the depositional histories of the site, trace archaeological materials can be seen to be exposed in all stratigraphic units that occur after about 50.000 years ago. They clearly note that this includes materials that are known to have been deposited after the lake had dried up, about 15,000 years ago. To them this clearly indicated that human occupation and migration, in and around the area, occurred under a range of palaeo-environmental conditions.

Hiscock (2008:39) however, presents that argument that it is not the skeletal remains that presents the most powerful argument for early human occupation at Lake Mungo, but rather the stone artifacts excavated by Wilfred Shawcross between 1974 and 1980. Shawcross (1988:183), who interpreted the site as a specialized manufacturing area, recovered hundreds of stone artifacts scattered throughout the sandy layer (to a depth of about 2 meters from the top of the strate) below the stratigraphic level represented by the burial of WLH3. Optically stimulated Luminescence (OLS) analysis of the associated sediment layers led researchers to the conclusion that the artifacts uncovered in the lower range of the excavation were between 45,000 and 50,000 years old. (Bowler et al. 2003)

Aside from the wealth of information and scholarly debate generated from the physical remains uncovered at the site, Renfew and Bahn (2012:535) also convey the extent to which finds such as these challenge the perception of, “Whose Past?”, and how this relates to notions of significance and ownership, along with explanations of why things happened, and even into issues of meaning, and interpretation. They explain that “different communities have very different conceptions about the past which often draw on sources well beyond archaeology” (Renfew & Bahn, 2012:535). The initial collection of artifacts and ancestral remains, along with the ensuing studies and testing that has been periodically undertaken since the 1970’s, was embarked upon with little, if any, involvement from the Aboriginal community. In a number of areas around the country, Aboriginal communities have since demand the return and / or repatriation of all skeletal remains, and periodically inclusive of cultural materials of indigenous ancestry, to them, as the legitimate ancestral custodians. Many of the remains (dated 19,000 to 22,000 years old) disinterred from Lake Mungo have since been returned to the local Aboriginal community for reburial. These include, the skeletal remains of Mungo Lady, WLH1 (discovered 1969, returned 1991), and more recently those of Mungo Man, WLH3 (discovered 1974, returned 2015), which following ceremony were returned to the Aboriginal Elders of the Mungo area, the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa and Paakantji/Barkandji people (ANU, 2015)

The value of the site at Lake Mungo in South-eastern Australia cannot be overstated in terms of archaeological or academic importance. It has provided many finds that have challenged the Australian archaeological community in more ways that simply their skills and abilities. It has forced an adjustment in the way in which sites, artifacts and histories are viewed and conveyed. It has challenged the ideology associated with ownership of antiquities and of antiquity. It has provided a means for better educating future generations about a topics, such as ritual cremation and burial, which continue to remain relatively unknown.

 

References:

Australian National University (2015). Ancestral Remains returned to traditional owners. ANU Newsroom, 6 November 2015. Retrieved from <http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/ancestral-remains-returned-to-traditional-owners&gt;.

Bowler, J. M., Jones, R., Allen, H. & Thorne A. G. (1970). Pleistocene Human Remains from Australia: A Living Site and Human Cremation from Lake Mungo, Western New South Wales. World Archaeology, Vol. 2, No. 1, Early Man (Jun., 1970), pp. 39-60

Bowler, J.M. & Magee, J.W. (2000). Redating Australia’s oldest human remains: a sceptic’s view. Journal of Human Evolution vol. 38, pp. 719–726

Bowler, J.M., Johnston, H., Olley, J.M., Prescott, J.R., Shawcross, W., Spooner, N.A. (2003). New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature vol. 421. (20 Feb., 2003) , pp. 837-40.

Gillespie, R. (1998). Alternative Timescales: a critical review of Willandra Lakes dating. Archaeology in Oceania. vol. 33(3).,pp. 169-182.

Gilespie, R. & Roberts, R. (2000). On the reliability of age estimates for human occupation at Lake Mungo. Journal of Human Evolution, vol. 38, pp. 727-732.

Fitzsimmons, K. E., Stern, N. & Murray-Wallace, C. V. (2014). Depositional history and archaeology of the central Lake Mungo lunette, Willandra Lakes, southeast Australia. Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 41 pp. 349-364.

Hiscock, P. (2008). Archaeology of Ancient Australia. Routledge, New York N.Y

Renfew, C. & Bahn, P. (2012). Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practices (6th Edn.). Thames & Hudson, London

Shawcross, W. (1988). Archaeological excavations at Mungo. Archaeology in Oceania, vol. 33, pp. 183-200

Thorne, A., Grün, R., Mortimer, G., Spooner, N.A., Simpson, J.J., McCulloch, M., Taylor, L. & Curnoe, D. (1999). Australia’s oldest human remains: age of the Lake Mungo 3 skeleton. Academic Press. Journal of Human Evolution (1999) 36, pp. 591–612