Mungo dunes reveal their timelessness
Halfway between the far western towns of Mildura and Ivanhoe, 120 kilometers along a rutted dirt road featuring signs which warn motorists to take extra fuel and water, the flat mallee scrub country and clay pans give way to an extraordinary sight.
A ridge of sand dunes, some so compressed as to be soft rock. rings a dead flat featureless plain of saltbush.
The ring, technically known as a lunette, stretches about 10km by 30km. On the northern side, strong westerly winds, which often whip the sand up into great swirling dust clouds, have over the last 15,000 years eroded the soft material into a stark, almost lunar landscape.
Although locals had long known about the Mungo sandhills, originally part of the Gol Gol station, but later carved up for soldier settlers after the First World War since the area was first settled, it was not until 1965 that scientists realised that Mungo was in fact the remains of an ancient lake.
A geomorphologist from the Australian National University, Dr Jim Bowler, was flying over the region, when he realised that he was looking at the ancient sandhills surrounding the dried remains of an ancient lake from the Pleistocene era.
Such lakes, common in the Australian inland until about 15,000 years ago, were the favoured locales for Aborigines. Their waters and foreshores were abundant sources of food. When extensive snow and ice cover on the Great Dividing Range melted about 15,000 years ago, the inland waterways and lakes dried up. The Mungo dunes, known in places as the China Walls, have been eroding ever since, exposing a veritable graveyard of animal and human bones.
It had long been known that bones - some of them animals long extinct from the mainland, like diprotodons (giant wombats, the size of cows) procoptodons (kangaroos, two and a half times the size of the giant red kangaroo) and thyalcines (Tasmanian tigers) - could be found in the erosion gullies of the dry sand hills. Indeed, a tourist attraction at the old Mungo sheep station was the skeleton of a giant hairy nosed wombat.
But it is the discovery of human bones in recent years that have well and truly put Mungo on the map. Some of the human bones there have defied carbon dating - usually reliable to 50,000 years. Others, including the bones of a young man buried with ceremony - and therefore religion - 30,000 years ago, are even more startling. The man had been buried with his bones crushed, burned and ochred. Scientists believe he was light-boned and gracile in appearance, totally unlike other heavier set skulls found at the Kow swamp, south-east of Mungo.
The only older skulls found anywhere in the world that have similar features have been found near the Li River China, and some scientists suggest a link between the two. The bones have features dissimilar to those of the local descendants of the Paeerindji and Paakantji tribes who have been extensively consulted sinec the area was dedicated a national park in 1979.
Local tour guide Graeme Grant says that fact s 'political dynamite'. Notwithstanding that view, he says landholders around Mungo are of the opinion that if they find something, they would plough it back into the soil, such is the local antipathy towards white bureaucracy and black land.
That's a pity. because it is an extraordinary sensation to walk among the blackened remains of campfires and the litter of bones, shells and stone tools that stick out of the sand, and know that those fires burned at least 15,000 years ago, several times the duration of the entirety of civilisation.
The calcified bones and shells will no doubt continue to be revealed by the shifting sands and winds.