After months at sea, Captain Charles Sturt arrived in Sydney in 1827 as part of a regiment escorting a boatload of convicts sentenced to transportation from England to its newly established penal colony in the southern hemisphere. Soon after arriving in Sydney, Sturt heard rumors of a vast inland sea somewhere to the west and developed a desire to travel to the interior of the wild, arid, and heretofore unexplored country in which he found himself. (Unexplored by the non-indigenous Europeans, it should be noted.) In November 1828, in the blistering Australian summer heat, Sturt led a company of soldiers and convicts in search of the mythic body of water he was convinced must be at the terminus of the rivers that flowed westward from the New South Wales coast. While Sturt managed to chart the courses of a number of large rivers during this initial voyage, no inland sea materialized, much to his puzzlement. Sturt staged a number of subsequent expeditions to the interior, making his final venture to unlock the mystery of southern Australia’s inland waterways in 1844. In the end, all of Sturt’s attempts to find the country’s fabled inland sea failed, as did subsequent expeditions by other explorers, and for one simple reason: they were all tens of thousands of years too late.
Had these early European explorers been around fifty thousand years ago, they would have witnessed, due to the significantly different climate patterns of the late Pleistocene epoch, large swaths of now-dry Australian desert covered in water. Fed by melting ice-age glaciers and rainfall in the nearby Snowy Mountains, these inundated inland reaches were indeed the “seas” that Sturt had envisioned. Were these bodies of water in existence today, they would be among the top ten largest lakes in the world by surface area. As it happens, the climate changed, precipitation lessened, and over time the water sources that fed these mega-lakes slowed to a trickle and, at some point around 10,000 years ago, evaporated entirely. Only fractions of these ancient lakes exist today in the form of smaller, mostly saline bodies of water such as Kati Thand (Lake Eyre) and Munda (Lake Frome). The remaining prehistoric lakes dried up completely, leaving long, wide stretches of parched sediment, sand, and soil in their wake.
Perhaps the most significant of these once-fertile sites is the Willandra Lakes region in southwestern New South Wales. (Sturt’s exploration of the Murray River in 1828 brought him near the area, but his traveling party did not venture far enough from the water for a proper survey.) The region contains five large dry lake basins and 14 smaller basins covering an area roughly 2,400 square kilometers (927 sq. mi.). The largest and most significant of these is Lake Mungo, a dry lake bed that is now the central feature of Mungo National Park, located 760 kilometers (473 miles) west of Sydney. The park itself covers an area roughly 1,127 square kilometers (435 sq.mi.). The Willandra Lakes Region was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, in part because of its archaeological and geological significance, as well as its “bearing an exceptional testimony to a past civilization.”
Around 50 million years ago, tectonic activity caused the plains of the Willandra Lakes Region to sink while simultaneously lifting the eastern Australian highlands. The newly formed depression, combined with generous precipitation over the eons, created a true inland sea. But over the millennia the climate changed, glaciers came and went, and the lakes eventually dried up. As the bodies of water shrank, they became more and more saline, leaving behind different soil and mineral deposits as the winds carried the moisture away. These perennial winds moved primarily from west to east, blowing soil, sand, and sediment eastward and, in the case of Lake Mungo, piling it all in layer after layer upon the eastern shore. The end result was an enormous crescent-shaped dune, or lunette, that still bears the outline–visible from space–of a lakeshore that is no longer there. Piled nearly 40 meters (131 feet) high in some places, the ancient dunes are composed of three distinct sedimentary layers, each deposited at a specific time in the past. The oldest of these, the Gol Gol layer, was laid down around 100,000 years ago, is composed of calcareous solids and is reddish in color. Above that is the Mungo layer, deposited 25,000 to 50,000 years ago, which is made up of sandy clay. The most recent stratum, the Zanci layer, dates from 25,000 to 15,000 years ago.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Lake Mungo lunette are the so-called “Walls of China,” earthen towers rising from amidst the dunes. Wind and rain have eroded the dunes into a terrestrial moonscape of jagged and furrowed sedimentary towers of mud and clay, each one bearing visible striations showing layers of deposited sediment in different colors and densities. The process of erosion is ceaseless and unforgiving, so just as new forms are revealed by the elements, existing ones are constantly being worn back down to dust. The exposed sediments, aside from contributing to the visual drama of the open terrain, provide the opportunity for scientific study of the climatic changes in the region over the past 100,000 years. Since the dunes occupy what was once the shore of a vibrant lake ecosystem, one that supported both human and animal life, the erosive processes also have revealed a trove of archeological evidence of ancient human habitation going back 50,000 years.
In 1969, Jim Bowler from the Australian National University discovered the partially cremated remains of a woman dating back 40,000 years. Dubbed “Mungo Woman,” she is believed to be the earliest known example of someone being ceremonially cremated. Subsequently, in 1974, Bowler unearthed the remains of “Mungo Man,” whose body was covered in red ochre, also believed to be a ceremonial burial practice. These finds amazed the scientific community at the time, and to this day are the oldest human remains ever discovered in Australia. Additionally, in 2003, a number of ancient fossilized footprints and trackways were discovered in the Willandra Lakes Region. These fossils are the oldest footprints in all of Australia and the most numerous of their type anywhere in the world. After being thoroughly documented and investigated, the Willandra Trackways site was reburied and its location withheld from the public to ensure it remains protected and undisturbed.
The significance of these finds is difficult to overstate. They suggest the presence of human settlements on the shore of the lake at a time contemporary with the oldest known human habitations in Africa. Some scientists speculate that there may have been migration out of Africa to the Australian continent, while others believe these bands of early humans were either native or migrated south from Asia. Archaeologists have also found abundant evidence of domestic life: fireplaces, charcoal, and cooking implements. Some animal bones found within cooking hearths are from long extinct species and are indicative of the food preferences of these Pleistocene-era inhabitants. These included the procoptodon (a giant kangaroo) and a large wombat-like animal, the zygomaturus.
Despite the importance of the archaeological evidence excavated in the Willandra Lakes Region, there is tension between the scientific community and the Aboriginal people for whom Mungo Man and Mungo Woman are direct and/or spiritual ancestors. There has been a push around the globe in recent years for artifacts housed in European museums to be returned to the cultures from which they were taken, and the same ethical questions surround the fate of Mungo Man and Woman, as Lake Mungo is a traditional meeting place of three Aboriginal groups: the Barkindji, Ngiyampaa, and Muthi Muthi. As Ann McGrath, Professor of History and Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at The Australian National University, put it: “Debates over the repatriation and reburial of remains of people who lived in the Pleistocene remain deeply contentious, not least because of the legacy of trauma left behind by nineteenth and twentieth-century collectors, who robbed graves and sold remains to metropolitan museums in the Imperial centers such as London, Berlin, Paris, Sweden and elsewhere.”
Charles Sturt failed in his many attempts to find the great inland sea that so preoccupied his imagination. But what he certainly failed to imagine–and what required teams of modern archaeologists to discover–was that 50,000 years before his arrival that sea actually existed, and that it supported a host of ancient Aboriginal peoples who lived, died, and were buried on its shores.
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