Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Oldest Human Remains in Australia

The Willandra Lakes in the central southeast of Australia is a system of freshwater lakes to the west of the Lachlan River situated between the Murray-Darling Basin and the fringe of the desert. These Lakes were full between 50,000-60,000 years ago, though at the present they are dry. They covered an area of about 1,000 km2 and were about 10 m deep. When the Aboriginal people encountered these lakes they camped along their margins and exploited the plentiful resources of the lakes, frogs, fish, yabbies, and shellfish. It is not common to find burnt bone around the lakes, but the few found indicating they were hunting bettongs, bandicoots, quolls, wombats, possums, small wallabies and eastern grey kangaroos and eastern red kangaroos. It is common to find burnt-out wombat burrows around the lakes, indicting that an ancient wombat hunting technique was to burn out or smoke out wombats from their burrows. They also hunted emus and collected their eggs, and starch grains found adhering to the stone implements proved to be starch from sweet potato. The earliest signs of settlement around these lakes, though slight, indicate that humans were present around the lakes between 45,700 - 50,100 BP (with a statistical variance suggesting the lakes could have been occupied 43,400 - 52,500 BP), The artefact densities increase over time, peaking between 43,000 and 45,000 years ago, and it has been assumed that the human population also peaked  at that time.

A burial has been found in the sand dunes near the lake that contained the remains of an old man, often called Mungo Man. His skeleton had remained undisturbed for at least 38,000 years and possibly as much as 42,000 years. The age of the man at the time of death has been estimated as about 50. He was buried in a grave that was 80-100 cm deep with his hands clasped [clasping his penis See Mungo Man]. Red ochre covered his head, chest and groin, the quantity being used was enough to stain the surrounding sand. The author1 raises some questions such as how the ochre was applied? Was it rubbed into the skin of the man post mortem? Was it a decorative part of an ancient shroud? Was it sprinkled over the body? And where did the ochre come from?

The nearest source of ochre is 200 km away to the northwest in the Olary region, South Australia. People must have travelled 200 km to the mine or traded for it. Whichever way they obtained the ochre it would have entailed human effort and organisation.Cane1 suggests the generous application of the ochre indicates some degree of emotional attachment and/or the high status of the man. The application of the ochre certainly implies some form of ancient funeral rite involved in his burial, the decorative treatment possibly suggesting concern for the afterlife. 'The sense of ritual attendance, the decorative consideration and careful placement of the corpse implies grief, communal concern and reverence'1. The importance of the burial is not only that it may be the first of its kind in the world, but that it also displays recognisable human emotions, creating an empathetic link with this ancient community over a period of 40,000 years.

The old man had an arthritic elbow, atlatl elbow or spear thrower elbow, an arthritic condition that results from years of throwing spears, an overuse injury that probably caused some degree of pain in his later years. The wear pattern of his teeth suggest he used them to strip plant fibres, possibly for the construction of nets, baskets or dilly bags. The author1 has observed desert people using their teeth to strip bark from herbaceous desert shrubs for use in the making of sandals to protect their feet from the hot desert sand in simmer, possibly he had made sandals for the hot dunes of the Willandra area. He also had no lower canine teeth, indicating that he may have had them removed as part of the initiation rites when he was a young man, if so it is the earliest known initiation ritual in the world. There are also the remains of a young woman who was buried around the same time, though the burials are not related. She was 148 cm tall, 4'10", and lightly built. Her head was oval, with a delicate, fine-featured face and small teeth, the gracility suggesting to Cane1 that she was pretty. She had been cremated, following which her bones were smashed and placed in a small burial pit. Her burial is reminiscent of traditions of the desert where the dead are buried, leaving their spirits to roam until past scores have been settled. At this time friends and family try to disguise themselves in an attempt to avoid spiritual retribution. At this time they shave off their hair and remove all attachments to the life of the deceased in an attempt to avoid attracting the attention of the wandering spirit. The remains are eventually exhumed, the skeleton is smashed then reburied, as the spirit is now at rest and the people can carry on with their lives.

This woman is the earliest know incidence of cremation in the world. These are the earliest known traditions that were developed to deal with grief. Life and death at Willandra Lakes allows us to see how significant the ancient human response was , and the use of ritual to the way people dealt with the loss by way of considered burial.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Cane, Scott, 2013, First Footprints: The epic story of the first Australians, Allen & Unwin
Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated  23/11/2013
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