By Ignacio Jara
After the 2014 AQUA and biennial conference at Mildura, a group of attendees had the chance to travel north to visit the Mungo National Park in the Willandra Lakes region, New South Wales. This area features a series of dry lake basins bordered by old sand dunes. From the road the region looked quite flat and deserted to eyes accustomed to lush, green, New Zealand scenery. But soon the flatness of the desert was replaced by an overwhelming feeling of significance. This region has an outstanding Quaternary history to tell based on 40 years of research.
The Willandra Lakes system can be understood as “stairway” of dry lake basins linked by one river system, the Willandra Creek. Although at present the river is not more than a narrow meandering dip in the ground, during the recent past it was way more active, filling and empting the lake basins many times during the Quaternary period. This wetting and drying activity was associated with the build-up of extensive shoreline rings or “barrier beaches” that captured and preserved a wide range of different sediments including sands, gravel, plant and animal remains. Over time, these fossil-rich shorelines were buried and sealed by clays derived from the dry basins floor, building up bordering dunes systems or “lunettes” on the eastern edges of the Willandra lake basins.
Lake Mungo is one of these lake basins in the southern part of the Willandra system. Archaeological findings suggested that during wet phases the lake shore sustained continuous human population that exploited the lake’s aquatic resources (figure 1). The last evidence of a water-filled lake occurs around 15,000 years ago and since then the continuous erosion of the lunettes has revealed a great number of old animal and human remains from those early times, becoming an outstanding region for archaeological research in Australia. Early investigations of the lakes history were focused on its complex Quaternary sedimentary sequence, however the archaeological significance of this region was greatly enhanced by a series of exceptional archaeological findings during the lake 1960’s and 1980s, including the discovery one of the world’s oldest cremated remains named “Mungo Girl”, followed by the discovery of a near-complete red ochre-covered skeleton called “Mungo Man. These two human remains represent one of the oldest evidence of modern Homo sapiens outside of Africa and their dating (from OSL) is now accepted to be~40,000 years old.
Our group had the privilege to visit the Lake Mungo area in the company of some of the leading scientists who discovered the bodies and have been working here for many years. The aim or the field trip was to review the geological and archaeological investigations at Willandra, as well as see some of the new ongoing scientific research at the park.
On our arrival at the Mungo Visitor centre, the group was welcomed by some elders from the traditional tribal groups of the Willandra area. After sharing a welcome morning tea that warmed our bodies on the cold dessert morning, we visited the southern edge of Lago Mungo where the first human remains were found in 1969 (Figure 2). The colourful moon-like background of the eroding dunes was undoubtedly beautiful, and we had the privilege to listen not only to Prof. Jim Bowler talk about the scientific implications of some his archaeological findings, but also to the aboriginal elders comments on the significance of Mungo for their ancestral culture and heritage.
In the afternoon the group visited an ongoing archaeological dig on the Lake Mungo Lunette. Since 2007 a multidisciplinary research group have been working here with the purpose of gathering new information about the extensive human occupation record of this area and to improve the understanding of the past environmental evolution of the lake. Walking through the colourful landscape of the lunette at dusk with the vastness of the desert as a background, watching the archaeological excavation, and listening to the archaeologists describe some of the findings, was undoubtedly an inspiring experience that made us – mostly geologist, biologist and climate scientist- appreciate the overall relevance of archaeological investigation. Bearing in mind the significance of the Willandra Lakes as an area of world heritage did nothing but boost this “sacred” feeling of visiting this venerated site.
During the second day we had the chance to spot a great number of wild kangaroos and emus. The final stop for the field trip occurred in the afternoon of the second day, when the group visited the eastern border of Lake Mungo. A series of ancient footprints were discovered here in 2003. Detailed studies of the foot tracks have revealed intimate insights into the transportation of the family groups that inhabited Lake Mungo 20,000 years ago, including children’s escapades and even evidence of a one-legged individual. However, the paradox here is that erosion is working against the archaeologists, slowly erasing the ancient steps of ancestral Australians and hence this priceless cultural heritage.
Overall this field trip presented a unique opportunity to visit an important region for Australian science and history. The presence of some of the scientists who have discovered and studied this area made the trip even more informative and special. Covering more than 40 years of outstanding research in two days was a major challenge and of course many pieces and details of this history were left for another occasion. However, if you want read more details about this exciting field trip experience, an extended version of this article will be published in the upcoming Quaternary Australasian newsletter.