Ce qui embellit le d├ęsert c'est qu'il cache un puits quelque part... : Human response to long term landscape change at Lake Mungo in the Australian desert

Lake Mungo is the best known (dry) basin within the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area in the southeastern Australian desert. Its significance is threefold. Firstly, the transverse lunette dune on its downwind margins preserves the world’s oldest known ritual burials, Australia’s oldest known human remains, and widespread archaeological traces documenting human behavioural change. Second, the lunette’s sedimentary stratigraphy provides the most complete archive of past environmental change available in the region. Finally, the conjunction of archaeological and geological evidence presents us with a unique record of interactions between people and their environment over the last 50,000 years. The strategies people developed in response to changing environmental conditions, and the nature and duration of climatic transitions in the region, however, have until recently been poorly defined.

In this presentation I will present the results of recent work which aims to systematically integrate past environmental and archaeological records from Lake Mungo. I will introduce the problems of reconstructing past conditions in this arid region at risk of severe erosion and degradation—and in a World Heritage Area where traditional archaeological excavation is forbidden—and outline the approaches which we have adopted to overcome these challenges. I will present new data reconstructing the history of lake filling and drying at Lake Mungo over the last 80,000 years, and will discuss what the lunette stratigraphy can tell us about changing wind regimes over time. This new environmental history includes a short-lived mega-lake phase just prior to the peak of the last Ice Age, during which time people were living in the area. The mega-lake created islands in the lunette, separated the eastern and western shorelines, and occurred at a time when the surrounding desert dunefields were active.

I will present an integration of this new palaeoenvironmental information with archaeological data from Lake Mungo to paint a picture of the adaptability and resilience of people living in the region under a variety of conditions. I will particularly focus on the implications for human behaviour during the mega-lake phase, with respect to mobility across the landscape and access to resources.