FACT SHEETS

Stepping back into the deep past at Lake Mungo

29.05.19 by Images by Paul Jones

With windswept lunettes and often stormy skies, the Lake Mungo landscape is a spectacular setting for a journey into the deep past. It’s also one of Australia’s most significant areas of cultural and archaeological interest – a treasure trove of clues to the lives of the people who came before us.

The Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area is the stunning and significant backdrop for a biannual camp that sees hundreds of school children staying on Country and learning about the area’s cultural and natural history.

From learning about more than 50,000 years of Aboriginal history to getting their hands dirty to understand the basics of archaeological fieldwork, close to 250 students from 35 schools across NSW and Victoria had their eyes opened to Australia’s epic story during the 2019 Mungo Youth Project (MYP) Conference from 7 to 9 May.

Dr Nathan Jankowski at the Mungo Youth Project
The oldest known human remains in Australia
Mungo Lady and Mungo Man – were found in 1968 and 1974
Dated to around 40,000 years ago
they are the world’s oldest known examples of ceremonial burials

Held every two years, the MYP Conference gives primary and secondary school students an immersive lesson in Australia’s Indigenous past and present. This year’s event was sponsored by CABAH.

Over a busy three-day schedule, the students learnt about Aboriginal heritage and cultural practices through interactive sessions with Aboriginal elders and cultural practitioners, National Parks staff, pastoralists, educators and an archaeological science team.

Held every two years, the MYP Conference gives primary and secondary school students an immersive lesson in Australia’s Indigenous past and present. This year’s event was sponsored by CABAH.

Over a busy three-day schedule, the students learnt about Aboriginal heritage and cultural practices through interactive sessions with Aboriginal elders and cultural practitioners, National Parks staff, pastoralists, educators and an archaeological science team.

CABAH researcher Dr Nathan Jankowski, from the Unversity of Wollongong, has been doing fieldwork at Lake Mungo for the past two-and-a-half years, collaborating closely with a team of archaeologists from La Trobe University and the local Indigenous community.

“Taking part in the MYP is a way of saying thank you to the amazing people who have welcomed me into their community and onto Country,” Dr Jankowski said.

“I’m a bit jealous that I never had the opportunity to take part in anything like the MYP when I was at school. Not only are the students exposed to really interesting and different ideas and perspectives, but hopefully some of them will be inspired to consider science and archaeology as a career option.”

Lake Mungo is an archaeological site of world significance. The oldest known human remains in Australia – ‘Mungo Lady’ and ‘Mungo Man’ – were found here in 1968 and 1974. They are also the world’s oldest known examples of ceremonial burials.

 

 

Dated to around 40,000 years ago, Mungo Lady and Mungo Man re-wrote Australian history (for European Australians anyway; Indigenous Australians have always believed they have been here forever), placing people on the Australian continent many thousands of years earlier than thought at the time.

Further research has revealed evidence of continuous human habitation in the Willandra Lakes area dating from at least 50,000 years ago up to the present day.

Mungo Youth Project 2019. Images by Paul Jones.

“There’s such a rich archaeological heritage here. We’re trying to piece together the heritage of the region and of Australia’s First Peoples, and to understand what the landscape was doing while they were here,” Dr Jankowski said.

“I refer to this landscape as a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle because not only do we have to think about landscapes and landforms and how they are put together, but also there’s a time aspect here. Some of these landscapes are 40-, 50-, 60-thousand years old.”

Dr Jankowski worked alongside Dr Nicola Stern, from La Trobe University,  CABAH postdoctoral fellow Kelsie Long, from The Australian National, and UOW honours student Megan Ensor at this year’s camp. The team demonstrated key concepts and methods that archaeologists use in the field.

“The most important of these concepts is that all the heritage items students engage with during the activity are part of someone else’s ongoing story, someone else’s heritage,” Dr Jankowski said.

“The activity taught students how to recognise these archaeological materials, but also that these objects are special and need to be treated with respect.”

The students also learnt what the landscape could reveal about the distant past: how different layers in the gully walls indicate different time periods and past lake levels; how subtle changes in the colour of the ground underfoot revealed an ancient wombat burrow; or how blackened earth showed the site of a camp fire.

In small groups, the students were taken around to different sites on the lunette – a large sand and clay dune formed when there was water in the lake and where, for thousands of years and generations, people came to make tools and to hunt, fish, cook and eat. The water has long since disappeared but the dune remains, eroded in parts to reveal shell middens, camp fires, charred animal and fish bones, and stone tools dating back 20,000 years and more.

The students walked from site to site learning to recognise different artefacts. Once they know what to look for the students start seeing archaeology all around them, picking up and examining ancient mussel shells, emu eggs, stone cores and flakes, and then returning them to where they came from.

“Here at Mungo we do things a little differently to most archaeological excavations. We don’t actually excavate all that often,” Dr Jankowski said.

“We’re interested in what is occurring naturally on the surface. The sand dune is eroding and so archaeological artefacts are being scattered across the landscape. It’s the archaeologist’s job to figure out where these things came from originally, and then it’s my job as a geologist to help them put a time bracket on that archaeological material.

“From that information we’re trying to piece together what the everyday lives were of the people that were living in and around this area.”

“Here at Mungo we do things a little differently to most archaeological excavations. We don’t actually excavate all that often,” Dr Jankowski said.

“We’re interested in what is occurring naturally on the surface. The sand dune is eroding and so archaeological artefacts are being scattered across the landscape. It’s the archaeologist’s job to figure out where these things came from originally, and then it’s my job as a geologist to help them put a time bracket on that archaeological material.

“From that information we’re trying to piece together what the everyday lives were of the people that were living in and around this area.”

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