Human responses to long-term landscape and climate change in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area 

The Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area is an icon of Australia’s Indigenous past, yet little is known about the lives of the people who once lived there. In collaboration with the Traditional Tribal Groups of the Willandra area, an integrated program of archaeological and geological research is providing insights into the long history of human settlement in this area and into the ways in which Indigenous groups accommodated the dramatic changes in landscape and climate change that took hold within a few thousand years of their arrival to the continent.

Specifically, this project is examining the rich archaeological record that has been preserved within lunettes, source-bordering dunes on the eastern sides of lakes, within the Willandra region. The lunettes are stratigraphically complex features that formed during alternating phases of lake levels.  Sandy sediments were deposited on the eastern lake margins during periods of high lake levels, while finer grained sediment, including peletal clays, were deposited when the lakes had largely dried out. The lunettes are particularly susceptible to erosion, especially following intense short-term rainfall events and the archaeological investigations are recording the spatial distribution of significant artefacts. 

CM-W Project 1CM-W project 2
Left: The 'Walls of China' lunette on the eastern side of Lake Mungo, western NSW. Right: Isolated residuals of lunette sediments of the Walls of China lunette, Lake Mungo, Willandra Lakes region, western NSW.

Significantly, the ‘Walls of China’, the lunette bordering the eastern side of Lake Mungo preserves the world’s oldest human cremation with a minimum radiocarbon age on associated cultural material of 32,000 years.

Optical stimulated luminescence dating is being applied to determine the age of significant depositional episodes in the formation of the lunettes and amino acid racemisation (AAR) analyses are being undertaken on fresh water molluscs and emu eggshells from middens, as well as fish otoliths to determine the age of middens. The AAR method is also being applied to assess the taphonomic integrity of the different midden deposits. Work undertaken thus far has accurately determined the location of several thousand artefacts.

CM-W project 3CM-W project 4
Left: Hearth (relict fire place), Walls of China, Lake Mungo, Western NSW.  Right: Shell midden at Lake Leaghur, Willandra Lakes region, western NSW. 

Last reviewed: 3 January, 2014