Messages from Mungo National Park

By John Pickrell | October 28, 2014

The remains of a man were found at Lake Mungo in NSW 40 years ago. This discovery changed our understanding of Aboriginal history

In geological layers dated as far back as 50,000 years, there are stone tools and hearths, shellfish middens and butchered animal bones.

The bones of both Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, as well as the fragmentary remains of as many as 100 other people found at Willandra, made their way into ANU collections in Canberra during the 1970s and ’80s. The NSW State Government purchased Mungo station and turned it into a national park in 1979 (funds from Australian Geographic’s founder Dick Smith helped establish the visitors centre, which includes a small museum). Gazetting of the larger WHA followed in 1981.

The Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area covers 2400sq.km of semi-arid saltbush plains, dunes and sparse woodlands in the Murray Basin of south-western NSW. It consists of 19 dry relict lakes (see map, overleaf) that were once filled with glacial meltwater flowing east along the Willandra Creek from the Great Dividing Range.

These Pleistocene-era lakes, which were full from about 50,000 years ago, vary in size from 6 to 350sq.km; all have crescent-moon-shaped dunes called lunettes on their eastern sides, formed by prevailing winds. Mungo NP itself covers about 70 per cent of Lake Mungo, including the striking Walls of China, which are part of the lake’s 26km-long lunette.

“Some of the very earliest modern human remains in the world are here at Mungo,” says Harvey Johnston, a NSW Office of Environment and Heritage archaeologist, who’s been involved with Willandra since the late 1980s. “You have this record of human occupation going back 40,000 years and burials and ceremonies associated with that: cremations, burials with ochre, multiple individuals and burials with unusual features.”

Read the full story in #123 of Australian Geographic (Nov-Dec 2014).