Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Mungo Man - Willandra Lakes Hominid 3 (WHL 3) See Willandra Footprints

On 26 February 1974 an eroding gravesite was discovered in the shifting sands of a lunette around Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area in western New South Wales. The human skeleton, named Lake Mungo 3 had its fingers interlocked over the groin. The bones had been coated in red ochre at the time of burial, which is thought to be the earliest use of ochre for this purpose.

The skeletal remains found at Lake Mungo have recently been dated by 3 different methods, uranium series, electron spin resonance and optically stimulated luminescence, to arrive at a new, older, age of 62,000 years ± 6,000 years. Previously it was thought to be 30,000-40,000 years old. They have since redated to about 42,000 BP.

As any humans arriving in Australia could only have landed in the north, and Lake Mungo is in the far southwest of New South Wales, a great distance from the north coast of Australia, the first arrival must have been prior to 42,000 years ago.

Writing in Archaeology, May/June 2003, Dr Jim Bowler, the discoverer of Mungo Man, has claimed that 3 different labs have now revised the date back to 42,000 BP.

Whether Mungo Man was 40,000 or 60,000 years old doesn't change the arrival date of humans in Australia while the Malakunanja II and Nauwalabila I sites in Arnhem Land remain dated to 60,000 BP. These sites are well inland of the actual landing sites that would have been on the continental shelf at a time of low sea level, so presumably the time of the first arrival would have been even earlier.

Mungo Man, LM3 (WLH-3) has been claimed to be the oldest modern human skeleton from which mtDNA has been recovered. see Genetic Evidence

The skeleton was of a gracile type, and identified as a male by the configuration of the pelvis and thighs, but also because the positioning of the hands suggest they were holding the penis, interesting because this placement of the hands has continued until historic times. Other features indicating that the skeleton was of a male are the angle of the sciatic notch, a large femur head, and an estimated height of  170 cm (5 ft 7) compared to the estimated height of 148 cm (4 ft 10) for Mungo Woman. Another feature of this skeleton was the presence of a condition called woomera elbow or atlatl elbow, in the right elbow, that is, severe osteoarthritis believed to results from the action of throwing spears with a woomera for a number of years. This condition occurs only in the dominant spear throwing arm. This means that at 40,000 (or 60,000) years old, it is the earliest known use of a spear thrower.

Red ochre powder had been scattered over the body at the time of burial. The fact that ochre was used in the burial indicates that trade routes must have been operating even at this remote time, as there are no known sources of ochre for long distances around the burial site.

Source 3

According to the authors3 burial seems to have been carried out by humans for a very long time in island Southeast Asia and Australia, being a feature human behaviour since not along after the first signs of  their arrival in the region. The burial at Lake Mungo, that was associated with red ochre, is a notable example (Bowler et al., 2003; Habgood & Franklin, 2008), and the burials found at Willandra Lakes, that were later (Grün et al., 2011) and at Roonka (Robertson & Prescott, 2006).

Among the earliest known evidence of symbolic activity is the use of exotic ochre at Lake Mungo (Allen, 1972; Bowler, 1998), as well at other sites in Sahul, and throughout the Pleistocene pigment provides the most abundant symbolic evidence. At Lake Mungo the early use of pigment is suggested to possibly be the most significant of these sites as a result of its use in the WLH3 ritual extended burial and the transport of ochre over a distance of about 200 km to the burial site (Bowler, 2003). Dating to about 40,000 years ago, this site was the oldest known cremation in the world, as well as demonstrating the ritual complexity of the early inhabitants of southeast Australia (Bowler et al., 2003).

At Lake Mungo the imprints of shafts are the earliest known evidence of the use of wooden projectile technologies that date to about 25,000 years ago (Webb et al., 2006). Also at Lake Mungo, as well as other sites such as Riwi, dating from 36,000 to 40,000 years ago, is the first known evidence of long-distance social interaction or exchange, examples being marine shells, shell beads and ochre that were transported for distances of more than 200-300 km (Allen, 1972; Balme, 2000; Balme & Morse, 2006).

It has been shown by conjoining flakes onto horsehoof cores that prior to 40,000 years ago at Lake Mungo blades had been removed from the site (Shawcross, 1998).

Sources & Further reading

  1. Josephine Flood, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, J. B. Publishing
  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. Chris Hunt and Graeme Barker in Dennell, Robin & Porr, Martin, eds., 2014, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Search for Human Origins, Cambridge University Press.


  1. Mungo Man
  2. Not Out of Africa but regional continuity
  3. Mungo Man older than thought
  4. Mungo Man-The Dating Method Stretches Back the Human History of Australia
  5. A younger Mungo Man
  6. New age for Mungo Man, new human history
  7. Australia's oldest human remains-age of the Mungo 3 skeleton
  8. Mungo 3 (WLH 3)
  9. Mungo Over Millennia-the Willandra Landscape and its People




Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 10/03/2014

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