Lake Mungo is an archaeologically significant part of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area
located 987 km west of Sydney.
The photos were taken in July 2005, when my family and I visited after an unusual event - heavy rain. "Lake" Mungo - the last time it had water in it was 15 000 years ago, is one of 17 dry lakes which constitute the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, declared in 1981. The stark, silent, desolate and sometimes eerie landscape of sand, sparse but resurgent vegetation, and spiny, hard, pitted, crinkled and fluted dunes and ridges can look more like a moonscape.
The photos are mainly of the dunes - most of which were caused by excessive grazing in the 1900s. Early clearing of cypress pine stands (one photo shows a detail of some sheds, built with wire and whole cypress pine logs) didn't help the situation.
25 000 to 45 000 years ago the lake covered 135 square kilometres and was about 10 m deep. It was one of a series of freshwater lakes along Willandra Creek, which was then a major branch of the Lachlan River. The lakes dried up about 14 000 years ago. They are, however, an extraordinarily rich source of fossils. Walk along the ancient shoreline and you'll see charred bones, shells, charcoal from ancient files, all showing through the eroding dunes. .
The remains of extinct creatures - Tasmanian tigers, giant, short-faced kangaroos and a strange oxen-sized animal called a zygomaturus - have been found. Crucially, carbon dating has indicated that Aborigines inhabited the area 40 000 years ago, making it the site of the oldest known human occupation in Australia. From the lake they gathered mussels, Murray cod and golden perch. They also hunted wallabies and rat kangaroos and collected emu eggs.
One of the photos I took is of a shell fragment found in the dunes. Soon I will upload more photos of bones and ancient hearths we found when walking around the south-eastern side of the lunette.
Findings of ochre in the area, dating back 32 000 years, constitute the earliest evidence in the Pacific Basin of the deliberate selection of pigments. As there was no local source it has been deduced that the material was carried there for aesthetic purposes. Moreover, a 28 000-30 000-year-old burial site reveals that the body was covered in red ochre. A 26 000-year-old grave contains the earliest known human example of cremation. After the ritual incineration the bones were smashed and deposited in a hole by the pyre. These practices clearly suggest the presence of spiritual considerations.
Convex flake tools made from local material dating back 20 000 years have been found, while sandstone grinders from 10 000 BP (before the present) or earlier suggest the inhabitants adapted to the arid conditions which later prevailed by grinding wild grass seeds, making them among the first people in the world to grind flour. The sandstone came from at least 100 km away, suggesting patterns of seasonal migration. A number of the finds indicate practices parallel with recent Tasmanian Aborigines.
Prior to being declared a National Park in 1979 this land was part of Mungo sheep station, created when the Gol-Gol station was subdivided in the 1920s for returned soldiers. It was named by the Cameron Brothers after a picture they saw of St Mungo's Church in Scotland. The park still contains a 45-m woolshed, built by Chinese labour of local pine logs in 1869. There are other buildings, including a former homestead, relating to the sheep station. Squatters first arrived with their sheep in 1840. Considerable conflict ensued with the indigenous tribes - the Barkindji, Ngiyampaa and Mutthi Mutthi, descendants of the area's ancient inhabitants. However, many were decimated by European diseases and forced to live on a mission at Balranald. Today they are involved in the management of the park and their wishes concerning the handling of their dead ancestors are now respected.
Today the vegetated dry lake basins are situated within a dunefield stabilised by mallee-type vegetation. Tall, steep escarpments abut the western perimeters of the lakes with crescent-shaped dunes called lunettes to the east, formed by quartz sands and pelletised clay, blown from the lake by the westerly winds. The most famous example of a lunette in the park is the the 'Walls of China' which rises to 30 m above the plain and runs for some 30 km around the old lake's eastern shore.
The area has been relatively free of clearing and pasture improvement although introduced animals destroyed the native vegetation, particularly along the Walls of China. Ironically it is this stripping of the flora which exposed the dune's top soil to erosion and hence uncovered the archaeological finds. Today the pre-European vegetation is returning. Birdlife is increasing, particularly pink cockatoos and chats and the striking mulga parrot. There are also kangaroos, emus and plenty of lizards.