By Nick Gadd:
The most immediately striking aspect of Lake Mungo is the dunes. At the eastern edge, on a crescent-shaped fringe of sand and clay called a ‘lunette’, extraordinary natural sculptures appear, carved by the wind and weather. Once they were covered with vegetation, but after European settlement sheep and rabbits quickly disposed of much of it, and these days only a few trees and bushes remain, clinging photogenically to dunes that resemble scenes from a fantasy landscape.
There’s no visible water. Before the last Ice Age, 20,000 years ago, this was part of a huge network of fertile lakes and rivers in the south-west corner of what is now New South Wales. Today it is a vast dry bowl, vegetated mainly by saltbush and criss-crossed by kangaroos, though Aboriginal oral history tells us that the lake filled again within the last few thousand years.
If that was all there was to Lake Mungo, it would be remarkable enough. But the really astonishing discoveries are below the surface. The wind is blowing the dunes eastward at a rate of three metres a year. As they move, the sands are giving up their secrets, including human skeletons, tens of thousands of years old.
It was here, in 1969, that archaeologist Jim Bowler discovered the bones of ‘Mungo Lady’, followed a few years later by ‘Mungo Man’, the oldest human remains found in Australia. Both these bodies showed signs of sophisticated burial and cremation practices, pointing to at least 40,000 years of unbroken human occupation and culture at Mungo. Since then there have been many more discoveries: bodies, fireplaces, axes, mussel shells, the skeletons of megafauna – even, poignantly, a set of footprints, 20,000 years old, baked into the soft clay by a group of running men, walking women, and a wandering child.
Walking across the dunes today, we leave our own footprints, the indentations of our boots intersecting with the tracks of a kangaroo that passed through a few hours ago. It inevitably leads us to wonder how many more ancient ancestors lie beneath our feet, and what might remain of the destructive culture of the West in 40,000 years.
You can read more from Nick on his website Melbourne Circle: Stories from the Suburbs and follow him on Twitter. Nick was a contributor to Elsewhere No.02 where he wrote an essay on the ghost signs of Melbourne.