Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Kow Swamp

Kow Swamp, in northern Victoria, had a lake-full stage from the end of the Pleistocene to early in the Holocene, at which point it covered about 25 km2 to a depth of 3-4 m. Wind-blown sand from the beach of this lake-full phase formed a low dune on the southeast shoreline, known as the Kow Sand. It was in this dune that the burials were situated.

In 1968 excavation of a site on the edge of Kow Swamp, not far from that of the Cohuna skull, uncovered a partial skeleton, the other half of which was already in the National Museum of Victoria, which had led to the search for the remainder of the skeleton. This Skelton was named Kow Swamp 1. By 1972 the skeletons of nearly 40 individuals had been uncovered around the edge of Kow Swamp, mostly along the eastern shore, in a narrow belt of lake silt. This silt was partially overlain by a crescentic sand dune (lunette). Radiocarbon dates from bone and charcoal associated with the burials, show that the burials span a period from about 13000 to 9500 BP.

The graves were in relatively soft silt and sand. The preservation of the skeletons was enhanced by the formation of carbonate crusts on the bone, in some cases up to 1 cm thick. Construction of an irrigation ditch through the site has disturbed some of the burials. Differential mineralisation allowed the disturbed skeletons to be reassembled because of the slightly different colours of the different skeletons.

Some of the undisturbed skeletons displayed a variety of orientations of burials, some stretched out on their backs, some on their sides, some were in a crouched position, one facing downward and forward, the knees drawn up to the chest with hands in front of the face, some were tightly flexed, with the body on its side or back, and there was 1 cremation.

This is the largest single population burial site in one locality of the late Pleistocene in the world. They were of men, women, juveniles and infants. Kow Swamp is thus of great importance to world prehistory.

The enigma of Kow Swamp is that the skulls are younger than those at Keilor and Willandra Lakes, but appear much more archaic. The people at Kow Swamp had large, long heads with very thick bone, up to 13 mm thick. Their faces were large, wide and projecting, with prominent brow ridges and flat, receding foreheads. From above they show a pronounced inward curvature behind the eye sockets, giving the skull the appearance of a flask. They had enormous teeth and jaws, some even larger than Java Man, Homo erectus (Previously called Pithecanthropus, from the middle Pleistocene of Sangiran.

Teeth are usually the most resistant body parts found in excavations of animals, but at Kow Swamp the teeth are not well preserved, few being found with their enamel crows still intact. Some of the damage to the teeth was caused by post-mortem erosion, but as well as that, the teeth of all adults display pronounced wear. It is thought it was probably the result of using grindstones to crush seeds, the stone particles in the ground seeds being responsible for the large amount of wear on the molars.

Only 1 individual at this site is of advanced age. The first molars of nearly all adults show such severe wear that the roots are exposed and worn down half way to their ends. The result that many individuals had chronic periodontal disease.

The appearance of the skulls at Kow Swamp suggest they were physically similar to those at Cohuna and Talgai.  This contrasts strongly with the more gracile appearance of the inhabitants of  Keilor and WLH 1 (LM1) & WLH 3 (LM3). The gracile people lack the flat, receding foreheads, pronounced brow ridges, massive jaws and thick bone of the Kow Swamp people.

Several of the Kow Swamp burials included grave goods. One body was placed on a bed of mussel shells, others included ochre, shells, marsupial teeth and quartz artefacts. One body was covered with powdered ochre. The same had occurred in a 40,000 year earlier burial at Mungo, showing a long continuity of customs, even though the people were apparently physically different.

Most of the grave goods were utilitarian, but one burial from Kow Swamp, about 12,000 BP, had a band of kangaroo incisor teeth around the head, traces of resin on the teeth suggesting that they were originally stuck together. In the 19th century, Central Desert Aboriginal People wore a head band of kangaroo teeth, plant fibre and resin. Kow Swamp, possibly dated to as early as 22,000 BP. At least 40 individuals were buried with grave goods, some of which were mussel shells, stone artefacts, marsupial teeth and ochre; The Cohuna cranium came from the Kow Swamp site. It has been dated to between 14,000-9,000 BP, but it has been suggested it may be between 22,000 BP and 19,000 BP, (based on OSL dating); KS1 has been dated to 10,070 +/- 250 BP (ANU-403b); KS5-13,000 +/- 280 BP (ANU-1236); KS9, 9,300 +/- 220 BP (ANU-619b); KS9, 9590 +/- 130 BP (ANU-532); KS14, 8,700 +/- 220 BP (ANU-1038); KS17, 11,350 +/- 160 BP (ANU-1235); The Kow Sand where KS9 was buried, gave OSL dates of 14,400 +/- 800 BP & 19,000 +/- 1,100 BP. The Cohuna Silt, containing the burials of KS1, KS5, KS14 & KS17 gave an OSL date of 21,600 +/- 1,300 BP. (Thorne & Macumber, 1972; Brown, 1987,1989; Pardoe, 1988,1995; Stone & Cupper, 2003).

OSL ages for the Kow Swamp people

The authors4 obtained OSL dates for the Kow Swamp sediments that differ from the radiocarbon ages previously obtained for the site. According to the calibrated 14C ages the Kow Swamp people occupied the site in the period 15-9 ka. According to the single aliquot OSL ages they actually occupied the site during the Last Glacial Maximum, LGM, 22-19 ka. The authors4 suggest Palaeoenvironmental reconstruction supports the OSL dates for the Kow Swamp people, as the shoreline silt, the location of most of the burials, was deposited at a time of high lake levels between 26 and 19 ka. According to the authors4 there were few remaining robust people by the time the lunette formed after 19 ka, the authors4 suggesting climate change may be the explanation for the demise of this unusual genetic population.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing, 2004
  2. Phillip J. Habgood & Natilie R. Franklin, The revolution that didn't arrive: A review of Pleistocene Sahul, Journal of Human Evolution, 55, 2008
  3. Mary E White, Running Down, Water in a Changing Land, Kangaroo Press, 2000
  4. Stone, Tim, and Matthew L. Cupper. "Last Glacial Maximum Ages for Robust Humans at Kow Swamp, Southern Australia." Journal of Human Evolution 45, no. 2 (8// 2003): 99-111.

Timeline of Burials



Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 07/03/2013

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