Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Mungo and Willandra Lakes – Archaeology, Past and Future

In this paper Allen & Holdaway have reviewed archaeological research in the Willandra Lakes area carried out over the past 40 years and found a number of methodical and conceptual problems. Among these is the use of ethnographic models of Aboriginal behaviour to organise the data obtained by archaeology. In such models spatial relationships were privileged more than temporal relationships and minimised the extent of archaeological changes that occurred over time. Allen & Holdaway say Bowler’s correlations of archaeological and hydrographic changes that have occurred since the Late Pleistocene have the best match of research to date of the limited archaeological data that is available. When the archaeology of Pleistocene age from Willandra Lakes is compared with that of the same age from Tasmania time averages records that are amenable to analysis of patterns and mobility and material use are revealed, though not of sites that are functionally defined nor of assemblages of artefacts that are typologically defined. Large samples of stone artefacts that have been recovered from wide areas, together with a strategy of dating of land units based on radiocarbon and optical dates can be used to study the periodicity and intensity of human occupation of the Willandra Lakes. The reconsideration of the relationships between behaviour, function, space and time, as well as a reformulation of much of existing knowledge of the archaeology of Australia during the Pleistocene is required by such a strategy.


Allen & Holdaway say that when the manner in which ethnographic models and settlement pattern archaeology interact are considered in a detailed manner serious deficiencies in these approaches are revealed when they are applied to the Pleistocene archaeology of the Willandra Lakes. Allen & Holdaway also say that Bowler’s exploration of the relationship between sedimentary strata, human occupation and changes in lake conditions that span the period from 50 ka to 15 Ka his alternative is the most successful to date. Bowler’s methodology, without being reduced to determinism, at least provided a framework for the partial judgment of impacts of climate and environmental changes in the lake system on the subsistence patterns of Aboriginals. Going from observations of the presence or absence of archaeological materials in specific strata to a fuller assessment of human utilisation patterns requires a more specifically archaeological agenda. This approach will require a reconsideration of fundamental relationships that involve function, behaviour, space and time, based on the experience of Allen & Holdaway studying the Holocene archaeological record. Possibly the most critical for our constituency, which increasingly includes Aboriginal readers; it requires the development of innovative narrative structures relating more closely to the nature of the archaeological record.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Allen, H. and S. Holdaway (2009). "The archaeology of Mungo and the Willandra Lakes: looking back, looking forward." Archaeology in Oceania 44(2): 96-106.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated: 18/07/2015
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