Lake Mungo lunette 1977

In south-western New South Wales, not far from the Darling River, there are a series of large, relic Pleistocene lake beds. On the eastern margin of these former lakes are extended, crescent shaped sand ridges called lunettes. In the Pleistocene, when these lakes contained water, people lived on the lunettes, fished and hunted near the lakes and occasionally buried their dead in the soft sand. In 1968, Jim Bowler, who was researching the development of the lakes and their associated lunettes, came across the exposed calcrete block containing the Lake Mungo 1 cremation.

Mungo 1 lateral Mungo 1 frontal

mungo 1 superior mungo 1 posterior

(copyright Peter Brown 1981)

Lake Mungo 1 was found in situ deflating out of the Mungo stratigraphic unit at the southern end of the "Walls of China" lunette at Lake Mungo (Bowler et al. 1970). Radiocarbon dating of bone fragments from the burial obtained an age of 19,030 ±1410 years (ANU-618A) on bone apatite and 24,700 ±1270 (ANU-618B) on the collagen fraction. A further date of 26,250 ±1120 (ANU-375B) was achieved with charcoal from a hearth, stratigraphically equivalent to 15 cm above the burial (Bowler et al. 1972). It was considered that the most reliable estimate for the age of LM1 was 24,500-26,500 years BP. More recent reassessment of the radiocarbon dates from the Willandra Lakes by Richard Gillespie (1997, 1998) indicates that LM 1 is probably closer to 17,000 years in age. Even at this younger date LM 1 remains the oldest, reasonably well dated, human burial in Australia and possibly the earliest human cremation from anywhere in the world.

Reconstruction and description of LM1 was undertaken by the then Ph.D. student, Alan Thorne, at the Australian National University. While Lake Mungo 1 was available for study for several decades, unfortunately only limited detailed information was ever published (Bowler et al. 1970; Thorne 1971, 1976, 1977; Brown 1987a). The reasons behind the inadequate publication of this important human fossil, as well as LM3 and the Kow Swamp remains, are something of a mystery. Without detailed description it is difficult to assess the value of the published references to these materials. This problem is exacerbated by the limited distribution of casts, restricted access to the original fossils, and recent return of the Lake Mungo 1 cremation to Aboriginal community representatives for safe keeping.

Preservation of the LM1 cranium is poor, with the basicranial area intact but disarticulated from the vault, and a partial and fragmentary facial skeleton, dentition and mandible. Postcranial preservation is equally poor. The variation in the degree to which the bone fragments are burnt, particularly the cranial vault, suggests that the skeleton was broken up before cremation, or burnt, broken and then burnt again. Cracking and shrinkage of the vault bones, due to burning, has occurred but does not appear to have greatly altered morphology. Shrinkage, which may have been in the order of 5% (Dokládal 1971; Heglar 1984) (Dokládal 1971; Heglar 1984), was not taken into consideration in published statistical comparisons of the LM1 vault (Thorne 1976, 1977; Thorne and Wilson 1977; Brown 1987). While Thorne's descriptions and comparisons of LM1 always assumed that it was an adult the cranial sutures are all open and the spheno-occipital synchondrosis has only just fused. As the teeth are poorly preserved, with exfoliation of enamel, it is not clear if the third molar teeth were erupted and in wear. The spheno-occipital synchondrosis may fuse as early as 12-14 years in Aboriginal crania and there would seem to be some doubt as to the adult status of LM1.

Initial descriptions of LM1 emphasised the small size of the vault and relatively gracile build (Bowler et al. 1970). Alan Thorne found no evidence of a supraorbital torus, parietal bossing or of sagittal keeling. At the same time several "palaeo-Australian" features were argued to be present. These included "considerable recession of the frontal squame behind the orbital margin, marked post-orbital constriction and moderate temporal crest development in the area immediately adjacent to the zygomatic trigone" (:57). It is possible that this description was made before LM1 had been reconstructed, as it is at odds with the morphology of the fossil and more recent descriptions by Thorne (1976, 1977; Thorne and Wilson 1977). Given the early date for LM1, and the previous discovery of Kow Swamp (Thorne and Macumber 1972) , there may also have been some pressure to find archaic morphological features in the skeleton. After all, the creation of morphology to support claims of antiquity and links with hominid populations outside Australia, is a time honoured tradition in this part of the world (Klaatsch 1908; Smith 1918; Wunderly 1943; Thorne and Wolpoff 1981).

Statistical and morphological comparisons of LM1 with terminal Pleistocene and more recent Australian crania have yielded conflicting results. In a series of articles Thorne (1976, 1977; Thorne and Wilson 1977) distinguishes between the Lake Mungo and Keilor crania, which he argues are relatively small and gracile, and the Kow Swamp and Cohuna crania which are seen as relatively large and robust. This dichotomy represents the result of the migration of two genetically and culturally distinct groups of people to Australia at some time in the past. Indeed Lake Mungo 1 was argued to be so small and lightly built that it was outside the modern female range of variation (Thorne 1977). Brown (1987, 1989) compared all of the skeletons examined by Thorne as well as the Coobool Creek series. No support could be found for multiple Pleistocene migrations, with Coobool Creek covering the Lake Mungo-Kow Swamp range of variation and LM1 falling within the modern female range of variation.

Recent research and media

Archival footage of the discovery of Lake Mungo 1 and Lake Mungo 3 from "The long, long walkabout" (12.6.1975) BBC/ABC

Casts and access

The Lake Mungo 1 cremation has recently been returned to the Aboriginal community at Balranald in south-western N.S.W. for safe keeping at the Lake Mungo National Park. Casts of LM1 were previously housed at the Australian National University, and some institutions outside of Australia. The late Alan Thorne's casts of Lake Mungo 1were relocated to the Shellshear Museum, Anatomy Department, University of Sydney

References cited

Bowler, J. M., Jones, R., Allen, H. and Thorne, A. G. 1970. Pleistocene human remains from Australia: a living site and human cremation from Lake Mungo, western New South wales. World Archaeology 2:39-60.

Bowler, J. M., Thorne, A. G. and Polach, H. 1972. Pleistocene man in Australia: age and significance of the Mungo skeleton. Nature 240:48-50.

Brown, P. 1987. Pleistocene homogeneity and Holocene size reduction: the Australian human skeletal evidence. Archaeology in Oceania 22:41-71.

Dokládal, M. 1971. A further contribution to the morphology of burned human bones. In V. Novotny (ed.), Proceedings of the Ales Hrdlicka Anthropology Congress, Prague and Humpolec 1969, pp. 561-568. Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Prague.

Gillespie, R (1997) Burnt and unburnt carbon: dating charcoal and burnt bone from the Willandra Lakes, Australia: Radiocarbon 39, 225-236.

Gillespie, R (1998) Alternative timescales: a critical review of Willandra Lakes dating. Archaeology in Oceania, 33, 169-182.

Heglar, R. 1984. Burned remains. In T. A. Rathbun and J. E. Buikstra (eds.), Human Identification: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology, pp. 148-158. Charles Thomas, Springfield.

Klaatsch, H. 1908. The skull of the Australian Aboriginal. Report from the Pathological Laboratory of the Lunacy Department, New South Wales 1:43 167.

Smith, S. A. 1918. The fossil human skull from Talgai, Queensland. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, Series B B 208:351-387.

Thorne, A. G. 1971. Mungo and Kow Swamp: morphological variation in Pleistocene Australians. Mankind 8:85-89.

Thorne, A. G. 1976. Morphological contrasts in Pleistocene Australians. In R. L. Kirk and A. G. Thorne (eds.), The Origin of the Australians, pp. 95 112. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

Thorne, A. G. 1977. Separation or reconcilliation? Biological clues to the development of Australian society. In J. Allen, J. Golson and R. Jones (eds.), Sunda and Sahul, pp. 187-204. Academic Press, London.

Thorne, A. G. and Macumber, P. G. 1972. Discoveries of Late Pleistocene man at Kow Swamp. Nature 238:316-319.

Thorne, A. G. and Wilson, S. R. 1977. Pleistocene and recent Australians: a multivariate comparison. Journal of Human Evolution 6:393-402.

Thorne, A. G. and Wolpoff, M. H. 1981. Regional continuity in Australasian Pleistocene hominid evolution. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 55:337-349.

Wunderly, J. 1943. The Keilor fossil skull: anatomical description. Memoirs of the National Museum of Victoria 13:57-69.