Lake Mungo & the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area
Published by: Dr Chris Carter | May 28th, 2020
Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes Region are home to some of Australia’s oldest cultural artefacts. Although “Mungo Man” and “Mungo Lady” are the most famous, they are but two among many of discoveries that give us insight into the deep history of Indigenous Australia and the way the land has changed over millions of years. In this blog, archaeologist Chris Carter shares his knowledge of this exceptional UNESCO World Heritage Area.
One particular memory I have of this area was when I took a colleague, Professor Calogero Santoro from the Universidad de Tarapaca in Chile, to show him one of our few UNESCO World Heritage-listed areas. He was well aware of its significance, in archaeological terms at least, but as he had not visited Australia previously, he had no idea what to expect on this trip. Once he got over how flat the country was (imagine growing up within sight of the Andes and then driving across the Hay Plain from Canberra!), I don’t think he was initially impressed with what I had to show him.
It was all new to him and he certainly appreciated the wildlife and the subtle beauty of this landscape but when we approached an exposure of shells on the shores of an ancient lake, I was waiting for him to say that shell middens along the Chilean coast were far bigger and better than what I was showing him. The turning point came when I explained that the lake the shells had come from had not held water for at least 15,000 years. I can say from that point on, I had his complete attention.
Lake Mungo is perhaps the most famous of the Willandra Lakes. It is certainly the most widely known and more has been published about it than any of the other lakes in the system. Most people don’t even realise there are 19 lakes in a system flanking the Willandra Creek as it flows south-west across the central plain. Mungo is not even the largest lake – Lake Garnpung is around three times its size. Nor is Mungo one of the lakes on the main flow of the Willandra Creek – it was filled only after Lake Leaghur overflowed. Mungo’s fame is warranted though, as it has provided a wealth of archaeological evidence attesting to the antiquity of Aboriginal presence in the region, along with evidence of the changing environment over the past 10,000,000 or more years.
It is very difficult to imagine how this area once looked. The sea, within a huge gulf, extended from what is now known as the Coorong to the Willandra Lakes area. This vast sea was created some 28 million years ago, when a huge area between the Mt Lofty Ranges (SA) and the Grampians (VIC) subsided to below sea-level and was flooded. There have been several periods when the shorelines fluctuated, but the last major shift happened between six and three million years ago. An uplift – now known as the Padthaway Rise – occurred, which blocked the sea to the south and allowed a lake to form. The result was Lake Bungunnia, which once covered over 50,000 square kilometres, spreading over much of what was once flooded by the sea.
This lake existed until about 620,000 years ago, when a breach occurred allowing water to continue to the sea. A landscape that we are more familiar with today started to take shape and the Murray Basin began to take its current form. During the colder periods, snow and ice formed on the Eastern Highlands which would melt and rejuvenate the dormant streams that flowed across western New South Wales and, in turn, would invigorate the Willandra Lakes system.
From at least 45,000 years ago, humans settled the region around the lakes and along the rivers that flowed through western New South Wales. The climate was congenial, vegetation quite lush and wildlife bountiful – a perfect environment for people to thrive. Around 18,500 years ago, however, the lakes began to dry up and the watercourses once again became ephemeral. The Aboriginal inhabitants were able to continue living there, albeit they had to be more mobile and moved around the region as predicated by available resources.
Today, the evidence of past landscapes and previous inhabitants is present throughout this area. It is, however, transient. Hints of prehistoric occupation are constantly revealed as the sands shift or rains wash out artefacts. But they disappear just as quickly and no two visits can guarantee seeing the same material.
This palimpsest within the Willandra Lakes system is what drew Professor Jim Bowler to the area in the 1960s. The geomorphology of the area is a great teaching tool. Layers showing the makeup of previous landscapes can be ‘read’ as they are clearly visible in the distinctly coloured layers of soil in the lake lunettes. These were the crescent-shaped sand dunes that formed on the eastern shores of the lake beds. The best example is perhaps the ‘Walls of China’ that run for over 20kms along the eastern shore of Lake Mungo.
In 1968, while planning a field school, Professor Bowler was investigating a section of the ‘Walls’ when he noticed human remains coming out of the sand. The result was the discovery of Mungo Lady, who was later dated to be over 40,000 years old. These were the first of many sets of human remains found within the World Heritage Area and highlight its significance in the understanding of human development – not only for the region, but at a global level.
The evidence within the Willandra Lakes system is extraordinary. There are fleeting glimpses of past meals revealed by a scatter of duck egg shells or a range of stone tools and extinct animal bones. Then there are several hundred foot prints that show where humans walked across a wet clay pan over 20,000 years ago – including those of a one legged man!
Human occupation of the Willandra Lakes was widespread through both time and space. But although human history is present throughout this region, understanding it requires more than a brief glimpse of one location. If we think of history as we do a work of art: it can be appreciated on its own but to go beyond the superficial brush strokes requires detailed examination and open discussion which results in a far deeper understanding. Aboriginal ranger guides are an ideal way to experience a visit to Lake Mungo and the Walls of China: they are custodians both of the knowledge of the region’s culture and of its unique natural history.
Dr Chris Carter
Dr Chris Carter is an archaeologist with over 20 years’ experience leading tours to Central and South America, Spain and Ireland as well as within Australia. He is particularly interested in human interaction within landscapes and the formative period of cultural development. Chris has a BA(Hons), MA and PhD from the Australian National University (ANU). He has worked as a tutor at the ANU and lectured at both the ANU and University of Sydney Centres for Continuing Education. When not leading tours, Chris works as an archaeological consultant and heritage advisor. Chris’ research interests cover both Indigenous and Australian historical archaeology. He is also actively involved in research in the Atacama region of northern Chile and involved in a number of studies investigating the early settlement of this region. He has had a number of academic papers published in international journals.