[This piece, which records a part of our recent trip across the ditch, mixes the text of a brochure up with my own notes...]
Welcome to Mungo National Park, a World Heritage Site. When Lake Mungo was full, Aboriginal people camped on its shores. They fished and hunted the many large animals that came to drink at the lake. The shifting sands of the lunette on the eastern shore of the lake have revealed many well-preserved skeletons, artefacts, footprints, and campfires. The oldest evidence of human cremation and art have been found at Mungo.
When I worked at Auckland museum, I heard archaeologists talking about Lake Mungo as a place of pilgrimage, a place where enlightenment might descend, or at least be excavated from the mud and sand. Mungo was a huge, open-air archive, where a scholar could, with a little guesswork, turn a file of dried mud or smooth bone into a discovery, a theory, a theoretical paradigm. For a long time I imagined that Mungo must exist deep in Australia’s red centre. Opening an atlas one day, I discovered that it lay only a day’s drive from the Mallee farms where I had spent part of each of the summers of my childhood.
Please take care in our park. All roads become impassable after rain, and in the summer the heat can be extreme. Be aware that the distances between settlements are much larger in Australia than they are in most other Western countries.
Space and time relate strangely to one another in the Outback. There sometimes seems to be too much space, too many hectares and survey blocks and shires to decorate with stumped eucalypts and scruffy wattles. Fencelines march confidently away from the roadside toward the horizon, coated in fresh paint and strung with taut shiny wires, but in the bare middle distance they collapse in piles of rusty wire and termite-ridden timber.
Time slows, crossing this gross excess of space. As we skidded and glided down the dirt road to Mungo, a line from one of Dino Campana’s last poems kept occurring to me. ‘I leap out of time, into space’, Campana wrote, in a text that was probably truncated by the onset of the madness he would never recover from.
Would you like to observe Zygomaturus, the buffalo-sized marsupial, grazing at the edge of the water? Sorry – you are fifty thousand years too late, but there’s a life-size replica in the Information Centre.
Like my mother, my Aunty Thel has that special love of ocean views and cool hilltop breezes that only a childhood in the interior of Australia can bestow. Thel grew up in the Mallee, the dogear of Victoria, and she still checks the window sills for dust on dry windy city days. Thel urged us not to travel north past the Murray River to Lake Mungo. "With all the droughts we’ve been having, this lake of yours probably even won’t have any water in it” she warned us. I didn’t dare tell her that Lake Mungo has been dry for eighteen thousand years. The landscape out here is not empty - in fact, it is full of detail. It is a subtle landscape, and needs to be interpreted carefully.
The interior of Australia encourages fantasy. Forced to haul logs through swampland and lay the bricks of their own punishment cells in forty-degree heat, the convict-settlers of Sydney dreamed of a country on the far side of the Blue Mountains. Some of them imagined that China lay on the other side of the impassive peaks; others were convinced that the interior hid a nation of free and enlightened whites. In the first two decades of the colony scores of convicts slipped their chains and fled toward the mountains. Most of them vanished without trace, and therefore confirmed the existence of the sanctuary.
Some of the early, conjectural maps of Australia show a broad body of water in the centre of the continent: pursuing this mirage, Charles Sturt and his followers slogged north, out of the safe settled coastal strip of the continent, hauling rafts and skiffs behind them. Sturt returned years later on a stretcher borne by a skeletal horse. Blind and delirious, he begged for water even as his rescuers emptied a pitcher over his pursed blistered lips.
The silence and absence of detail found in parts of the Outback seems to overstimulate the imaginations of visitors. Sensory deprivation is known to provoke hallucinations. Before his eyes failed him, Sturt was convinced he could see waves breaking amidst the rocks of the horizon. The Mungo Woolshed was built in 1869 using locally cut cypress pine. Note the unique drop-log wall construction. Spend some time here and take a photo.
The woolshed was built by Chinese who arrived in Australia too late for the gold rush of the 1850s. After docking at Melbourne and paying a poll tax of ten pounds each, the aliens spent the last of their savings on trains to Ballarat and Bendigo, and found both towns encircled by abandoned trenches and pits full of scummed water. All the easy gold was gone, but there was work in the north, on the ancestral lands of the conquered Wergaia and Barkindji peoples. There was a labour crisis at the Gol Gol station at Mungo: the expropriated Aboriginals who had learned to shear sheep and ride cattle had just been herded into mission stations by men of God.
The rafters of the woolshed are made from cypress trunks no thicker than a man’s spine. Looking up from their half-finished work, across the mirage-water that covered the lake bed in midsummer, the Chinese were reminded of home by the barrier of mud and sand on the horizon. The Lake Mungo lunette soon became known as the Walls of China.
You are now dropping into the depression where the early settlers established Allen’s Plain Tank. Prior to the concerted eradication programme, this area contained huge rabbit warrens in its rich lime sediments. The warrens were used by bettongs and bilbies, species which are now extinct in this area. During the great flood of 1956, Allen’s Tank overflowed enough to enough to allow for water skiing.
Prehistory is popular, in the twenty-first century: French archaeologists fret about the damage done to their Lascaux Caves by tourist crowds, and the two million year- old skeleton Lucy draws sell-out audiences whenever she leaves her native Ethiopia to tour Europe or America. Lake Mungo, though, remains one of the least-known World Heritage sites, even amongst Australians. No one I talked to in Melbourne, Ballarat, Wycheproof, or Swan Hill had heard of the place. The hotel manager at the Murray River port town of Mildura, the closest settlement to Mungo, had heard of the site, but never visited it. ‘Never been on a paddlesteamer either, mate, and I’ve lived here all my life’, he told me as he handed Skyler and me our teabags and my towels.
How can Australians be so incurious? If the archaeological stash at Mungo were located somewhere else – on the side of an African volcano, or in a Javan cave – then Aussies would watch programmes about the place on the Discovery Channel as they balanced microwave meals on their laps.
For the last kilometre you have been crossing scalded areas and small rises. Bluebush with its solid form and tiny, thick, succulent leaves has dominated the rises, and rightly so – it is a hardy, reliable plant. Ahead is an excellent view of the lunette on the far shore of the lake, the so-called Walls of China. Notice the distinctly coloured layers in the eroded pinnacles. Each colour denotes a different epoch.
Mungo is neglected because it threatens Australians – or, more accurately, threatens the 98% of Australians whose forebears arrived on the continent in 1788 or thereafter - with the vastness of history. The timescale that white Australians have deployed in their local histories and public memorials begins with the coming of a few Godlike ‘pioneers’ and runs a hundred and fifty years or so through wars, floods, droughts, and sporting triumphs to the brink of a fondly-imagined future. The epic pretensions of this narrative are mocked by the charred and broken bones of Mungo Lady and the smooth, articulated skeleton of Mungo Man. The pink soil at the base of the lunettes was laid down between one hundred and twenty and one hundred thousand years ago, and is known as the Gol Gol unit. The brownish cream and white sands are the upper and lower Mungo units, and are between thirty-seven and sixty thousand years old. The grey chaps which cap the residual pinnacles comprise the Arumpo/Zanci unit, and are between thirty-seven and eighteen thousand years old. During this period the lake filled and dried out several times. Extensive evidence of human occupation can be found in the Mungo and Arumpo/Zanci units. Above the main lunette with its three ancient layers of soil are the white dune crests which have formed over the period since the lake dried for good.
When Maning Clark wrote the first, casually racist sentence of his six volume history of Australia at the beginning of the sixties, he was certain that the continent had not been settled for more than a few thousand years. Even as Clark laboured over his paean to the ‘civilising’ of Australia, though, other scholars were extending the history of barbarism on the continent backwards in time. By the end of the sixties, thanks partly to the discovery of Lady Mungo, humans had lived in Australia for at least thirty thousand years; a decade later, ten thousand new years had been added to the past.
The inhabitants of Mungo have themselves been ageing rapidly: a series of radiocarbon tests pushed their history back to forty thousand years, and in 2000 archaeologist Alan Thorne used uranium series, electron spin resonance, and optically stimulated luminescence tests to decide that Mungo Man, who had been discovered in 1974, was sixty-two thousand years old, give or take six thousand years.
In 1996 a Northern Territory rock shelter called Jinmium was excavated by two archaeologists, who dated some stone flake artefacts they found as one hundred and sixteen thousand years old. At about the same time, scientists were probing soil samples taken from Lake George, near Canberra, and deciding that they showed evidence of a drastic change in vegetation patterns about one hundred and twenty thousand years ago. Were humans already moving into the southeast corner of the continent then, sowing the eucalyptus forests with fire, and harvesting the silver fern roots they found amidst the stumps and ashes?
Filed according to an obscure but rigorous logic by the dunes and mud, the bones and stones and campfires of Mungo mock the pretensions of white Australia, in the same way that the Buddhist ruins of northern India mocked the British colonisers’ claims to represent an ancient civilisation.
Note the old boundary fenceline between Mungo and Zanci stations. Mungo station operated as a unit until it became parkland in the late 1970s, but Zanci was divided between military settlers after World War One. In the dry conditions of the Outback, the new farms were too small to be economic.
I have seen ruins before – old miners’ settlements sliding down impossibly steep Coromandel hills, a circle of gum diggers’ shacks sinking into a swampy estuary to the north of Herekino harbour, a nineteenth century utopian village rotting into regenerating forest in the English Midlands – but the ruins of Old Arumpo are different, and differently disturbing. In New Zealand and in Britain, ruins are quickly overtaken by vegetation and undermined by rot: it is as though nature is trying to ease the burden of human failure by erasing its material legacy.
At Old Arumpo, where soldier settlers tried to run a sheep station in the twenties and thirties, the dry climate and slow-moving, low-rise vegetation mean that the symbols of failure - an upturned chookhouse, the pine frame of a shearing shed, the fireplace of a smashed homestead - are preserved indefinitely. The flat landscape around Lake Mungo compounds the misery of the old settlement, by making it visible for many kilometres. Seen from the road to Lake Mungo, the Old Arumpo water tank resembles the classical pillars that stand above so many obscure ruins on the shores of the Mediterranean. Please remember that any Aboriginal artefacts you may find are protected by law. Do not pick them up. Do not disturb them in any way. If you meet an Aboriginal, remember that he or she may communicate differently from you – English may be his or her second or third language.
Sometime in the 1860s, a young Barkindji man named Harry Nanya led his two wives into the scrubby country to the east of Lake Mungo, away from the rest of his people and the white man’s mission station. For decades Nanya was a story to scare children with, a excuse to give the stationmaster when sheep and cattle disappeared into depressions or impenetrable eucalypt thickets, a shadow glimpsed on the scrubby side of the water tank at dusk.
Aboriginal trackers recorded the growth of Harry’s family, as new pairs of small footprints began to cross the red dunes behind the lunette, and the cold campfires in the gullies grew larger. When Harry Nanya was finally persuaded to ‘come in’ to a mission station in 1894, he brought a tribe of thirty-four men, women, and children with him. A photo taken shortly after the ‘capture’ of the ‘wild blackfellas’ shows them in perfect physical condition, with muscled limbs and torsos devoid of an inch of fat. A photo taken two years later shows legs and stomachs already thickened by the mission station diet of damper, sugar, and prayer.
Today Harry Nanya’s tribe fascinates demographers, who argue about whether or not the group’s rapid growth proves that the population of Australia could have expanded quickly once the ancestors of the Aboriginals arrived in the continent. The dominant winds are westerly. The eastern side of the lunette is the deposition zone for wind-borne sediments. The dunes are moving east, towards the Pacific Ocean, at a rate of up to three metres a year.
As we drive across the lakebed, slowing occasionally to avoid lizards – slow-moving shinglebacks, and nimble but erratic bearded dragons – the lunette grows larger and hazier. A breeze is blowing sand down from the dunes. I remember the popular name of the lunette, and begin to imagine a huge fortification, built by an Eastern potentate afraid of the unconquered peoples at the edges of his domain. As the road turns and runs alongside the lunette, I see the mud and sand pillars as towers on a great wall. The trees that cling to some of the pillars are flagpoles topped by the emperor’s green ensign. I can see the defenders of the wall, moving as swiftly as gusts of sand around their battlements, glancing down with incurious hostility at the barbarians who dare to approach them –
I am deceiving myself, the way Charles Sturt deceived himself. I am looking at layers of sand and mud piled up over one hundred and twenty thousand years, not the masterpiece of a lost martial civilisation. This landscape has seen enough romancing. The wind picks up, and a hunk of tumbleweed surges down the side of the lunette and across the lake bed towards us, through the yellow-gray air. For a moment I see a shadowy galloping horse, ridden by the emperor’s messenger.
After the lake dried, Aboriginal people continued to live beside soaks along a nearby river. They also quarried the rocks on the lake bed. No known area outside Africa was continuously inhabited for as long as Mungo.
Alan Thorne and Colin Groves work alongside one another at the Australian National University in Canberra, and joust good-naturedly in academic journals and on television, yet each man must surely believe that the other has wasted his life and deceived a generation of students. Thorne is an advocate of the theory that human beings evolved out of homo erectus in several different parts of the world, and eventually interbred; Groves holds to the more popular view that humans evolved in Africa and then spread around the world.
For Thorne, Lake Mungo is a vast laboratory in which the ‘Out of Africa’ thesis is being tested and found wanting. Almost a decade ago, Thorne announced that he had extracted and analysed DNA from Mungo Man’s remains. Because of the great age of the skeleton, and the very dry environment in which it had survived, Thorne’s announcement surprised the scientific community. His next piece of news was more surprising still: an analysis of the salvaged DNA showed that Mungo Man carried a genetic lineage which has become extinct. Mungo Man’s DNA sequence differs from that of 'Eve', the hypothetical ancestor of humans made famous by the Out of Africa theorists.
Thorne has more provocations to hurl at believers in the Out of Africa thesis. His analysis of the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady shows they were hypergracile – that is, exceptionally slight and fine-boned– individuals. By contrast, ancient skeletons found in northern Victoria’s Kow Swamp belonged to the most massive, heavyset modern humans yet discovered by science. How is it, Thorne asks, that the ‘Kow people’ have the same DNA as living humans, despite their apparently archaic features, while Mungo Man has different DNA, despite his ‘modern’ appearance? Thorne believes that Mungo Man and the Kow Swamp tribe represent two different groups of humans who immigrated to Australia separately, and eventually interbred and became the Aboriginal people.
Colin Groves and other proponents of the Out of Africa theory accuse Thorne of ignoring alternative explanations for the peculiarities he has discovered. What if the extraordinary appearance of the Kow Swamp people was caused by ritual deformation of the skull, a practice that was not unknown in Australian prehistory? What if the people who lived at Mungo simply represent a piece of human genetic diversity that got lost? What if their ancestors brought a genetic sequence out of Africa, but this sequence got isolated around Mungo and disappeared, as the lake dried up, bush tucker drifted away out, and the area’s inhabitants perished?
The Barkindji people play an important role in managing the Lake Mungo site, and supply the Rangers who staff the Information Centre and dig rented SUVs out of the road around the lunette whenever it rains. Many Barkindji were upset by the high-profile debate about prehistory that Alan Thorne’s study of Mungo Man prompted at the beginning of this decade. They felt that Thorne’s talk of two types of prehistoric Australians undermined their claim to indigenity, and the publication of photos of the remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady as illustrations to newspaper articles about Thorne’s discoveries only made them angrier.
You park your car on alluvial fans, formed on the eroding lunette. The rounded bright green bushes you can see on the dunes are sandhill wattles. Keep an eye out for kangaroos.
The western grey roos follow on either bank as we walk up a streambed from the eastern shore of the lake. The creatures stand silently on their hind legs and stare. Are they planning an ambush? Do they have an inherited memory of an ancient stream of cool water, a memory that compels them to attack us and drive us from their drinking spot?
These are, of course, absurd thoughts: kangaroos rarely act aggressively toward humans, and two centuries of pastoral agriculture have provided them with so many water tanks and troughs that their herds have reached pestilential proportions in parts of Australia. The sight of a roo on its hind legs is, nonetheless, disconcerting: standing above the scrub staring steadily, the creatures seem almost human, in the way that chimpanzees scrabbling round trees never could. I wonder how many of the sightings of Yowie, the Outback’s mythical Sasquatch-like creature, are actually misrecognitions of kangaroos?
The lunette is best crossed in calm weather.
I left my sunglasses in the car, so I have to close my eyes for minutes at a time when we walk into the wind, over the lunette. When I open my eyes I look down to avoid the gusts of sand, but the whiteness of the dunes dazzles me, and I become more disoriented. For a moment I imagine I am walking in Antarctica, over a huge bank of snow, into the sort of howling, mocking wind that tormented explorers in the movies I loved to watch as a child. As my feet sink deeper into the snow, I open my eyes and see that Skyler, who didn't forget her sunglasses, has turned to laugh at the blind, stooped polar explorer struggling along behind her. The other lunettes in the Willandra Lakes region are still covered in vegetation. The spectacular dunes and eroded mud of the Walls of China are the product of overgrazing and rabbit plagues. Ironically, though, without these environmental problems the ancient bones and artefacts that have made Mungo famous would never have come to our attention. We would never have gotten to know Mungo Man.
The precise site is kept hidden. He had been covered in red ochre. The ritual indicated a belief in an afterlife, and also, arguably, a belief in the efficacy of art. His hands were clasped together, and laid over his penis. I like to imagine that he died that peacefully in the place where he was found, above the inland sea that had sustained him, surrounded by his tribe, who stood in a quiet circle and waited to cover him with the red earth of the Outback.
The wind has dropped. It does not matter that we do not have coordinates to a grave site or a set of ancient footprints or a cache of adzes. It is enough that we wander randomly on the lunette for an hour or so, take our photos, and head back towards the car.