Lake Mungo is 1 of a series of 17 dry lakebeds in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area of Mungo National Park in New South Wales, Australia. Today the area is extremely arid, and the lakebeds rarely retain water except at the peak of a flood, but from 40,000 to 20,000 years ago, this area contained an enormous system of freshwater lakes connected by creeks. This ecological system was rich in plant and animal life, and it supported thriving Aboriginal communities. These communities from the distant past are the source of some of the most valuable archaeological sites in Australia, including the burials of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man.
In 1969, Jim Bower of the University of Melbourne found most of a skeleton buried in a hearth near the shore of Lake Mungo. The bones belonged to a woman who had died at approximately 19 years of age. Mungo Woman had been cremated, and the charred bones that remained had been smashed to pieces. The remains had been gathered and buried in a small cylindrical grave. Scholars dated the burial to 40,000 years ago, making Mungo Lady the oldest evidence of cremation in the world.
Five years after Mungo Lady was found, the bones of a male—later dubbed Mungo Man—were discovered nearby. Mungo Man was approximately 50 years old when he died. Before being interred in a shallow grave, he had been laid out with his hands clasped and his knees flexed. Red ochre had been painted all over his body, staining the burial sand pink. Mungo Man’s burial was also dated to approximately 40,000 years ago, making Mungo Man the oldest evidence of a ceremonial burial.
Various methods were used to test sand from the actual burials of both Mungo Lady and Mungo Man to date the remains as accurately as possible. During recent years, dates as varied as 26,000 to 50,000 years old have been applied to these burials. The discrepancy was the result of testing sand from the soil layer where the remains were found but not from the burials themselves. Stone tools found in sites at Lake Mungo and other lakes in the region have also been dated to nearly 50,000 years ago, supporting theories that humans occupied many areas of Australia at that time.
Life at Lake Mungo, especially from 40,000 to 30,000 years ago, was ideal for Aboriginal tribes.
There was abundant fresh water, and animals were plentiful. Bones of many animal species have been found, including the butchered remains of Tasmanian tigers, giant kangaroos, and zygomaturus, all of which are now extinct. Scientists have also found mussel shells and fish bones. Tools for grinding flour have been located. Human bones that have been found show very few signs of malnutrition, and fractured bones appear to have healed well. All evidence points to a well-fed, healthy group of people.
Today these former lakes are in a semiarid zone on the eastern edge of the continental dunefield. Rainfall is low and erratic. The dry lakebeds have sparse vegetation suited to desert climates. The eastern sides of the lakebeds have lunettes, which are crescent-shaped dunes formed by the predominantly westerly winds. Human burials, middens (garbage heaps), hearths, earth ovens, and stone quarries all have been found on or near these lunettes. More than 300 sites have now been recorded from the Willandra Lakes region, making the whole region valuable to archaeologists. Mungo Lady and Mungo Man especially have changed the way in which scientists view Aboriginal history.
- Bowler, J. M. (2003). New ages for human occupation and climate change at Lake Mungo, Australia.
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- Zimmer, C. (1999). New date for the dawn of dream time. Science, 280, 1243-1246.