Lake Mungo, Willandra Lakes, Australia

Lake Mungo Landscape
Paul Nevin / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Lake Mungo is the name of a dry lake basin which includes several archaeological sites, including human skeletal remains from the oldest known individual in Australia, who died at least 40,000 years ago. Lake Mungo covers about 2,400 square kilometers (925 square miles) in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area in the southwest Murray-Darling basin in western New South Wales, Australia.

Lake Mungo is one of five major small dry lakes in Willandra Lakes, and it is in the central portion of the system. When it contained water, it was filled by overflow from the adjacent Lake Leagher; all of the lakes in this area are dependent on inflow from Willandra Creek. The deposit in which the archaeological sites lie is a transverse lunette, a crescent-shaped dune deposit which is 30 km (18.6 mi) long and variable in its age of deposition.

Ancient Burials

Two burials were found in Lake Mungo. The burial which is known as Lake Mungo I (also known as Lake Mungo 1 or Willandra Lakes Hominid 1, WLH1) was discovered in 1969. It includes the cremated human remains (both cranial and postcranial fragments) from a young adult female. The cremated bones, cemented into place at the time of discovery, were likely interred in a shallow grave on the shores of the freshwater Lake Mungo. Direct radiocarbon analysis of the bones returned dates between 20,000 to 26,000 years ago (RCYBP).

The Lake Mungo III (or Lake Mungo 3 or Willandra Lakes Hominid 3, WLH3) burial, located 450 meters (1,500 feet) from the cremation site, was a fully articulated and intact human skeleton, discovered in 1974. The adult male body had been sprinkled with powdered red ochre at the time of the burial. Direct dates on the skeletal materials by thermoluminescence ages of 43 to 41,000 years ago, and by thorium/uranium are 40,000 +/- 2,000 years old, and dating of the sands using Th/U (thorium/uranium) and Pa/U (protactinium/uranium) dating methodologies produced dates for the burial ranging between 50 and 82,000 years ago Mitochondrial DNA has been retrieved from this skeleton.

Other Features of the Sites

Archaeological traces of human occupation at Lake Mungo apart from the burials are in abundance. Features identified in the vicinity of the burials on the shore of the ancient lake include animal bone deposits, hearths, flaked stone artifacts, and grinding stones.

The grinding stones were used for a wide variety of things, including the production of stone tools such as ground-edge axes and hatchets, as well as for processing seeds, bone, shell, ochre, small animals, and medicines.

Shell middens are rare in Lake Mungo, and when they do occur are small, indicating that shellfish did not play a large role in the diets of the people who lived there. Several hearths have been found that include high percentages of fishbone, often all golden perch. Many of the hearths include fragments of shellfish, and the occurrence of these seems to suggest shellfish was a fallback food. 

Flaked Tools and Animal Bone

Over one hundred worked stone tools and about the same number of unworked debitage (debris from stone working) were found in a surface and subsurface deposit. Most of the stone was locally available silcrete, and the tools were a variety of scrapers.

Animal bone from the hearths included a variety of mammals (likely wallaby, kangaroo, and wombat), bird, fish (almost all golden perch, Plectorplites ambiguus), shellfish (almost all Velesunio ambiguus), and emu eggshell.

Three tools (and a possible fourth) made from mussel shells found at Lake Mungo exhibited polish, deliberate notching, chipping, exfoliation of the shell layer at the working edge, and edge rounding. The use of mussel shells has been documented in several historic and prehistoric groups in Australia, for scraping hides and processing plant material and animal meat. Two of the shells were recovered from a level dated between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago; a third was from 40,000 to 55,000 years ago.

Dating Lake Mungo

The continuing controversy about Lake Mungo concerns the dates of the human interments, figures which vary greatly depending on which method the scholar uses, and whether the date is directly on the bones of the skeletons themselves or on the soils in which the skeletons were interred. It is very difficult for those of us not involved in the discussion to say which is the most convincing argument; for various reasons, direct dating has not been the panacea that it often is in other contexts.

The underlying issue is the globally-recognized difficulty with dating dune (wind-lain) deposits and the fact that the organic materials of the site lie at the outer edge of usable radiocarbon dating. Study of the geological stratigraphy of the dunes identified the presence of an island in Lake Mungo that was used by humans at the time of the Last Glacial Maximum. That means that aboriginal occupants of Australia likely still used watercraft to navigate coastal regions, a skill they used to colonize Australia's Sahul some 60,000 years ago.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Lake Mungo, Willandra Lakes, Australia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 27). Lake Mungo, Willandra Lakes, Australia. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Lake Mungo, Willandra Lakes, Australia." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).