Lake Mungo reveals ancient human adaptation to climate change

Lake Mungo’s ancient landscape.
Lake Mungo’s ancient landscape.

Aboriginal Elders from the Traditional Tribal Groups in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area are collaborating with researchers to produce the first integrated account of the history of human settlement, landscape evolution and past environmental change for Australia’s foremost ‘Ice Age’ archive.

Lake Mungo is renowned as the site of the world’s oldest known cremation and ritual ochre burial, as well as the longest trail of ancient human footprints. But until now little was known about the lives of the people who settled in this area more than 45,000 years ago.

The dunes bounding Lake Mungo preserve hundreds of rare, snapshot images of Australia’s earliest history: hearths lit to cook a single meal of fish and wallaby, a cluster of freshwater bivalves representing a midday snack, or debris from the manufacture of stone tools.

In contrast, most archaeological sites contain jumbles of debris from many unrelated activities that cannot be disaggregated to trace the manufacture of individual tools.

This unique record offers insights into the strategies used by the first settlers. It also helps illuminate the technological, economic and social strategies that people devised to accommodate long-term and dramatic changes in landscape and environment in this climatically sensitive, semi-arid setting.

The 2,400 square kilometre Willandra Lakes region is located in the southwest corner of the Murray-Darling Basin, in far western New South Wales. It was inscribed on the World Heritage Register in 1981.

For more information: The Mungo Archaeology Project, La Trobe University, Nicola Stern, Tel: + 61 (3) 9479 2429, n.stern@latrobe.edu.au

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