Lake Mungo and its Beautiful (and Important) Lunette

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Eroding wind-deposited sediments in the Mungo Lunette – the rainwater runoff carries the sand away in gullies of increasing size, creating beautiful formations in the sand left behind., which themselves will continue to be eroded. Photo: R. Inglis.

On the way back to Sydney from our visit to Peery and Fowler’s Gap, I had the privilege to stop off at Lake Mungo, part of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, and a must on all Palaeolithic archaeologists’ bucket list. A dry lake in part of the Murray-Darling basin, the repeated wetting and drying out of the lake over tens of thousands of years produced sediment that was blown into large dunes, or lunettes, at the edges of the lake basin during dry periods. As well as being a powerful demonstration of the impact of climatic changes on landscape, and a treat for any geomorphologist, this lunette is nationally and internationally significant because it preserves the earliest known human burials in Australia.

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The immense Shearing Shed of the former Mungo Station, with the yellow sands of the eroding lunette just visible in the far distance, beyond the vegetated, dry lake bed. Photo: R. Inglis.

The Lake was part of Mungo Station from the 19th century onwards, and was grazed by large numbers of sheep – attested by a huge, now-restored shearing shed. Grazing of the vegetation that grew on the lunette left it susceptible to erosion by rain, and it was this erosion that lead to the discovery, in 1974 by Dr Jim Bowler, of the remains of ‘Mungo Man’. Buried 42,000 years ago, Mungo Man is the earliest known Australian. The later discovery of ‘Mungo Woman’, cremated 40,000 years ago, represents one of the the earliest cremations in the world. In addition, stone tools and other archaeological material recovered from the lunette are only a few thousand years younger than the oldest known  stone tools in Australia at Malakunanja II, Arnhem Land (dated to 50-55,000 years ago). And that’s not all – the 20,000 year old footprints of a family group crossing the wet, clayey lake are a powerfully accessible link to these past people and landscapes – and are recreated in the visitors centre so you can literally walk in their footsteps!

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The re-created 20,000 year old footprints left by a family crossing the lake bed. Photo: R. Inglis

The remains and the footprints show the deep history of human occupation of the region, and archaeological investigations are currently underway by a team lead by Dr Nicola Stern at LaTrobe University. Yet Mungo has been in the archaeological news recently because of a new DNA study carried out on Mungo Man’s remains. In 2001, researchers lead by Dr Gregory Adcock, ANU, recovered DNA from Mungo Man, and other human remains from the lunette, which suggested that, instead of originating from Africa, these individuals carried genetic lineages that arose in Asia, challenging the Out of Africa model and questioning whether the ancestors of modern Aboriginal groups were the ‘First Australians’. The new paper, by Dr Tim Heupink, Griffith University, and co-authors, available through open access here, reports a re-testing of the original samples for the 2001 study and new sampling and analysis of the remains, using more advanced, ‘second-generation’ DNA techniques. Through this, they found that it is possible that a large part of the DNA tested in 2001 had come from contamination by people with European DNA haplotypes (a specific group of genes passed down from a parent) handling the skeletons. One of the Mungo individuals sampled did indeed possess an Australian Aboriginal haplotype, as well as a European haplotype – probably the product of contamination – placing the remains from Mungo back into the ancestry of modern Aboriginal groups. A more nuanced and detailed summary of this work and its implications can be found in this excellent blog post by researchers at Griffith University.

This study is also important because of the engagement of the Barkindji, Ngiyampaa, and Muthi Muthi Aboriginal groups in each stage of the research, a fact highlighted by the authors – Mungo is a traditional meeting place of the three groups. Whilst scientists and indigenous groups across the world can often be at loggerheads over the treatment of human remains, the study shows that with careful, considered engagement, research can be carried out with the interests of all involved parties respected, and it is this model that should be an inspiration to future research.

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A very heavily eroded section of the Mungo Lunette – note guided tour group to the far left for scale. Photo: R. Inglis.

This data from Mungo is important to the issues I am working on in SURFACE because there is so little known about the timing of dispersals out of Africa and into Arabia, Asia and beyond. Due to its position ‘at the end’ of these dispersals, Australia wields a major, but sometimes counterproductive, influence on our understanding of what happened ‘between’ Africa and Australia, for example, the model that Homo sapiens dispersed out of Africa and ‘coasted’ rapidly around the Indian ocean coastlines to get to Australia – more on this in a later blog. But its record does remain important to understanding global and regional dispersals, and the sheer depth of time that the continent has been occupied.

Our time at the park was limited to a quick drive out to the lunette and back, and the visitors centre provided a whistlestop introduction and a welcome and pleasant lunch spot. The future opportunity to join a guided tour around the lunette itself, as well as the beauty of the surrounding landscape, will definitely lure me back if I’m passing that way again. More information about visiting, as well as the history of the excavations and finds can be found at the excellent Mungo National Park website.

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