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Tools, Shells and Bones from Lake Mungo in Australia

The raw material for most of the Lake Mungo toolkit is silcrete. Silcretes are very hard layers of silica-enriched materials formed beneath the surface in soils, unconsolidated sediments, and permeable rocks.

The tools, shells and bones shown here are possibly 40 000 years old.

Lake Mungo


Painting of life at Lake Mungo by Giovanni Caselli. Note the fish traps, the wide variety of food hunted and collected, and the gunyahs or dwellings.

The ancestral aboriginal tribes of the Mungo Lakes system are the Paakantyi to the west of the lakes, Mutthi Mutthi to the south, and the Ngiyaampaa to the north. Another tribal group, the Yita Yita, also once lived to the east of the lakes. Many Mutthi Mutthi people have Yita Yita ancestry.

Photo and artwork: Giovanni Caselli, by permission.

More than one way to catch a fish

Lake Mungo has the oldest record in the world for people cooking and eating freshwater fish. Until about 22 000 years ago the Willandra area contained a vast system of freshwater lakes where Aboriginal people lived - fishing for Golden Perch and Murray Cod and collecting freshwater mussels, yabbies,bird eggs, animals and bush tucker.

Information on how Aborigines fished has been handed down through traditional kknowledge to contemporary Aboriginal people. European explorers also observed traditional fishing methods of the people who lived near the Murray and Darling Rivers.

Over thousands of years Aboriginal people developed efficient ways of catching fish. Below are examples of fishing methods used throughout the Australian continent.

Drugged - crushed toxic leaves and seeds were thrown into the water. This produced a toxin which stunned the fish.

Trapped - young trees were used to create a weir in a creek leaving an opening for a net. Large stone fish-trap complexes were also used to dam up small streams.

Netted - plant fibres were woven into nets which could be staked out to catch passing fish.

Plucked - in times of low water levels fish would become trapped in shallow isolated pools.These fish could be easily speared or simply plucked out of the water.

Hooked - line fishing existed in some areas of Australia using fish hooks made from shell.

Gathered - while some of the people were off hunting others collected mussels and yabbies.

(Source for text above: notice board at Lake Mungo)

Tools of the trade



lake mungo lunette
As the interior of Australia gradually dried up between 30 000 - 20 0000 years ago, the people of Mungo had to increasingly depend on hunting methods other than fishing to survive. They had already developed a variety of stone and wooden tools - examples of which are displayed here. Fire was also to become one of the Aborigines' most useful hunting and gathering methods.

Along the western edge of the lake, silcrete ridges provided the raw material for stone tool production. Silcrete was an important source of stone in an area where few rocky outcrops existed. This stone material was quarried from its source then taken to campsites and made into a variety of multi-functional tools. The remains of some of these 'workshops' can still be seen around Mungo today.

As well as locally obtained material, stone of high quality had been traded into the Willandra region. Many imported stone implements such as axe heads crafted from green stone from Victoria have been found throughout the lakes area. Large slabs of sandstone were also carried into the area to be used for the important task of grinding and processing plant foodstuffs.

Razor sharp stone flakes and tools were useful for many day to day activites including cutting, scraping, and shaping with other wooden tools. Stone and wood were not the only form of tool technology used - fire held many uses for Aboriginal people. It was used for warmth, light, cooking, tool making, communicating and flushing out animals. Its use as a hunting strategy during 'burn offs' promoted new growth - enticing a flurry of wildlife activity.

The remains of tool making activities represent the main material left by the early cultures that once thrived there. Many other items of the past have not survived the thousands of years that separate us today.The durability of stone artefacts has ensured that a record of the past has remained. They have provided clues to understanding other aspects of an ancient culture.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005




silcrete
The raw material for most of the Lake Mungo toolkit is silcrete.

Silcretes are very hard layers of silica-enriched materials formed beneath the surface in soils, unconsolidated sediments, and permeable rocks. These materials range from silica-cemented sand and gravel to an amorphous matrix enriched with small silica particles. There is little agreement as to their classification and origin. A minimum silica (SiO2) content of 85 percent by weight has been proposed by Summerfield (1983) to distinguish silcretes from other duricrusts.

Although not restricted to arid regions, silcrete zones are found in many deserts, and they are most extensive and prominent topographic features in Australian deserts. Silcrete tends to form roughly horizontal, highly resistant layers generally less than 5 m thick. When exposed by erosion, silcrete forms highly resistant cap rocks of scarps ("breakaways" in Australia). These cap rocks resemble quartzite.

Many talus slopes and gravel plains in areas of exposed silcrete consist of silcrete fragments eroded from the cap rock. Buried silcrete layers thicker than 3 m are rare, and they are generally not laterally continuous over large areas.

Reference: Summerfield, M.A. 1983. Silcrete. In Chemical sediments and geomorphology, edited by A.S. Goudie and K. Pye. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 59-92.

Display: Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre

Text: The US Army Corps of Engineers Topographic Engineering Centre, at
http://www.tec.army.mil/research/products/desert_guide/lsmsheet/lssilc.htm

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005




silcrete

This is a superb source of silcrete for tools. Most are in the form of pebbles, not large, good quality blocks like this. There are examples which have been found at Mungo of jade axes brought in from Victoria because of the lack of appropriate size and quality stone at Mungo.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source: Display at Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre






Text below from the display at the Lake Mungo Visitors centre:

A drying experience

Local studies of the Mungo geomorphology, (the development of landforms) have provided an interesting insight into the creation of the Mungo landscape. Over the last 50 000 years the Willandra Lakes landscape has been moulded by the powerful forces of the Ice Age. The coming and going of very cold climate conditions brought about a number of changes.

The water levels in the Willandra Lakes were influenced by the changing climate. At times the lakes were full, then low, sometimes fresh, sometimes salty, then finally dry. During this entire period the Aboriginal people were present in the landscape - a remarkable indication of a highly adaptive lifestyle.

Pre 50 000 years ago

The climate was slightly colder than today. Snow and ice lay in basins on the Great Dividing Range. Lake Mungo was rimmed on the east by an old lunette made of deep red soil. This is known as the Gol Gol Unit. Vegetation covered the dry lake floor and dunes.

50 000 - 30 000 years ago

A colder climate produced a large cover of snow and ice on the mountains. The Willandra Creek flowed freely, filling the lakes to overflowing. At Lake Mungo white quartz sand from the eastern beach was blown onto the lunette forming the Mungo Unit. Throughout this period climate conditions were stable enough to allow trees and shrubs to grow on the lunette.

30 000 - 15 000 years ago

Snow and ice on the mountains built up as the climate became even colder. River and lake levels fluctuated. At times Lake Mungo was shallow and salty and small clay pellets formed on the exposed mud flats. Clay pellets and sand blew onto the lunette forming the Zanci Unit. Water erosion began to create deep gullies and wind blown sand formed large mobile dunes at the rear of the lunette. Salt tolerant plants established themselves on the lake floor.


silcrete blades
These are long blades crafted from silcrete

Although silcrete is not an ideal material for blades, having too much granularity, the tools made by the Lake Mungo people are beautifully and elegantly made, with a minimum of blows in an apparently effortless style.

Display: Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005




didj


didj
This is a relation of a didjeridoo, about 60 cm in length, called an ulpirra, used as a magic charm for obtaining wives.

Note that the mouthpiece has been made with spinifex resin, which I have heard aborigines call "blackfella araldite".

Spinifex resin was a crucial ingredient in spear-making, as the head was often fastened onto the shaft using this resin.

A man would always carry at least one spear, and normally a clump of resin. In the evenings, repairs were carried out on spears and other utensils, and the resin was re-softened using the fire and some moisture.

Many species of spinifex are extremely resinous, to the extent that resin may drip down the stems and leaves on hot days, and large residual lumps of resin often may be seen at the bases of hummocks which have burned.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Text: Adapted from Wikipedia

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




At an elementary stage in the development of blowing techniques, areophones sounded by vibrating, or 'buzzing' the lips inside a tube, may have been more widely distributed in Australia than at present.

Some evidence for this is to be found in the literature on central Australian groups. Spencer and Gillen (1899) refer to a 'rudimentary trumpet" (60cm. In length) called ilpirra or ulpirra.

This was used by Aboriginal men as a magic charm for obtaining wives. C.Strehlow (1908: 77 and Teil IV,p.15) shows illustrations of the tjurunga ulburu and the karakara, the latter used in an Aranda Itata, or public celebration in which women participated. T.G.H Strehlow (1947: 78-9) writes of a 'low toned wooden ulbura trumpet' used by southern Aranda people on the Finke River. The instrument is pictured representing the neck (rantja) of a venomous snake 'playfully "biting" a novice from another Aranda group' (picture facing p. 89). Eylmann (1908) refers to wooden and bamboo trumpets; and his illustrations include a 'Trompete der Waramunga', that is of a desert group in area C. (The southern part of the Northern Territory)


Text above from: http://aboriginalart.com.au/didgeridoo/myths.html

bird bones



Bird bones. Presumably these would have been sometimes used as fine bone tools once the bird was plucked and eaten.

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




bone awl



Bone carefully sharpened at each end, probably for use as an awl, making holes in skins to fashion into cloaks, an essential item of clothing in the cold conditions of the ice age.

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




dilly bag
Dilly bag containing three emu eggs, made with two ply string.

These bags are used for gathering bush tucker (food) and are usually worn around the head.

The fibre used for the making of bush string is bark stripped from certain species of sapling trees. The inner bark is removed, chewed or pounded and then spun by twisting and rolling with the palm of the hand along the thigh a few strands at a time. Colours are obtained by boiling the unspun fibre with local roots and bulbs. Bush string is also widely used for making headbands, armlets, harnesses and other ceremonial regalia.


Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Text: http://www.flight-toys.com/artifacts/gh23.html

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre







Display Cabinet

Display Cabinet




All artefacts on display in this cabinet were made and used by the last known traditional Paakintji people who lived along the Upper Willandra Creek.

The objects were collected in the late 19th Century and represent some of the only surviving examples of Paakintji wood craft.

By courtesy of the late Mr Angus Waugh, 'Clare Station'.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




shield


Parrying or fighting shields were used to deflect (hand-held) spears and clubs during times of hand-to-hand fighting. The art of the shield carrier was developed during times of play and punishment.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source and text: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




shield


Parrying Shield, 19th–early 20th century
Southeastern region, Australia
Wood

H. 33 5/8 in. (85.4 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John J. Klejman, 1965 (1978.412.865)

Artists in the southeastern region of Australia formerly created two distinct varieties of fighting shields, each designed for a specific purpose. The first were relatively broad, flat forms, which were used to protect the bearer from projectile weapons, such as spears, throwing clubs, and boomerangs, thrown by an enemy at a distance.

The second type were narrow, compact parrying shields, such as the present work, used to ward off blows from fighting clubs and other handheld weapons during hand-to-hand combat. Originally gripped by the handle visible at the left and held with the narrow edge at the right toward the opponent, this parrying shield is adorned with a series of engraved zigzag motifs. There is virtually no historic information on the significance of the patterns on southeastern shields. However, they possibly represent emblematic designs symbolic of the owner's group affiliation or dreamings, the ancestral beings whose actions created the features of the landscape during the Dreaming (primordial creation period)..

Photo: http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/ho/10/oca/ho_1978.412.865.htm

Source and text: http://www.metmuseum.org/TOAH/ho/10/oca/ho_1978.412.865.htm




shield


Clubs made by the Paakintji were usually pointed. The idea was to deflect the club off an object on the ground so that it would bounce up under the opponent's shield.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source and text: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




spears spears


Three hand thrown spears (as opposed to being used with a spear thrower, these were for thrusting and throwing, and were much heavier - Don).

The one in the centre has bi-directional barbing along its tip and would have been used for fighting rather than hunting.

Non-returning boomerangs such as the two on the left were used for hunting and fighting. These throw away items were rougher than returning boomerangs, however they were still decorated.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source and text: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




spears



Returning boomerangs were mainly used for hunting ducks in conjunction with nets.

Aboriginal people would use hawk calls to make the ducks fly low - making them easier to catch.

The spear thrower or woomera was used with narrow, flexible spears that were later retrieved. The tips of these spears were made of harder wood such as mulga and belah.



Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source and text: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre









dilly bag
Fresh water mussel shells. These formed a significant part of the diet of the Aborigines of the area, being nutritious, plentiful, and easily gathered from the shallow lake.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




mortar
This mortar would have been used for grinding seeds and other food items.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




mortar and pestle
This mortar and pestle would have been used for grinding seeds and other food items.

Mortars and pestles were used for dry pounding and grinding of hard shelled seeds. The stone for this task had to be tough enough to withstand the pounding. The roots of mulga and mallee were also prepared using this process. They were peeled, roasted in ashes, pounded between stones and eaten. Grindstones were traded throughout the region. The stone for these grinding tools was transported from the Ivanhoe area.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source and text: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




mortar mortar


mortar
Mullers (a smaller hand held stone) and millstones (typically large, fairly flat "anvils") were used with water to process soft shelled seeds from plants and grasses. The surface of the stone was often pitted to make grinding easier, but the typical result of many hours of grinding was this very flat surface. Grindstones were essential for grinding seeds to make a dough for baking.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




mortar
I found this fragment of a millstone, apparently of very good quality sandstone, in the general area of the Walls of China. It was very thin indeed, possibly handed down from mother to daughter. It must have been a sad day when it broke. Stones of this size and quality have to be brought into the Lake Mungo area from elsewhere.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
This tool is most unusual, in that it has many facets, or flakes, taken from it. Most tools at Lake Mungo are very simple, not because the maker lacked skill, but because the "flint" or silex used was very poor quality. They had only "silcrete" to work with.

Silcrete is a very coarse material, rather like a very very hard sandstone, one in which silica (SiO2) has enriched the rock so that it is very hard. It is not possible to make fine tools with it, and it is not possible to do the "retouch" of very fine flakes which are typical for fine work in europe. Where the aborigines did have good silex/flint to work with, for example in the north of Australia, they made tools which are the equal of the best european tools.

You can see in this photo the very coarse nature of the material.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
This simple piece, what I think of as a "point", is much more typical of the sort of tools that were made. The tool maker had one chance to make a usable tool, and there was little possibility of further work to refine the shape.

It should be realised that all the stone in the area had to be brought from twenty kilometres away on the western side of the lake. If you find a stone, it was transported there 40 000 years ago by aborigines. There is no local stone, apart from some very small pebbles on the lake edge, of no use for tools, but which were sometimes used in the making of a hearth.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool
Two photos of the same tool.

Many of the tools at Mungo are of this type - what I think of as a "point" or a "finger". The ones found which are very thin and elongated often have been broken off at the tip, as this one has.

I am puzzled as to what they were used for, and why, so often, the tip has been broken off, as though the point had been twisted to the point where it sheared off. There are so many that they must have provided a common and useful function.



The most likely use is to prise open the mussels which constituted a very large part of the menu when Lake Mungo was full of water. This would explain why so many were made, and why so many of them have the tip broken off.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool
A blunted point, and one with the point broken off. The subtriangular cross section of the tool on the right is very common in the Mungo toolkit.



Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool
Broken points.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool
Points of inferior stone.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
This is one of the very few examples I have come across at Lake Mungo of a reworked stone. When the point broke off, the toolmaker took off some flakes to make it usable again.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
Point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




point
Broken point, of colourful but inferior material. Many of the tools show their origin as small or large pebbles, with the outer layers oxidised to a lighter or darker colour.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
A backed blade still embedded in the sand.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool tool
Scrapers.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




Eyre An eyewitness account

The following extract is an observation of an Aboriginal oven hearth being made in the last century.

"The native oven is made by digging a circular hole in the ground, of a size corresponding to the quantitity of food to be cooked. It is then lined with stones in the bottom (or clay balls where stones are unavailable), and a strong fire made over them so as to heat them thoroughly, and dry the hole. As soon as the stones are judged to be sufficiently hot, the fire is removed, and a few of the stones taken, and put inside the animal to be roasted if it be a large one. A few leaves or a handful of grass, are then sprinkled over the stones in the bottom of the oven, on which the animal is deposited, generally whole, with hot stones... laid on top of it. It is covered with grass, or leaves, and then thickly coated over with earth, which effectually prevents the heat from escaping."

Edward John Eyre, 1845.

Photo: The Australian National Portrait Gallery, http://www.portrait.gov.au/




hearth
On the 2009 trip I found more than a dozen hearths. They used to put stones or clay balls (stone was very hard to get, twenty kilometres away on the other side of the lake) in the bottom of a pit, get a decent fire going, then take out the coals, line it with grass and leaves, put a few of the stones inside the bird or animal, put hot stones on top of it, more grass and leaves, then cover with more earth or clay, wait several hours, then dig it up and have dinner.

This photo is of a hearth about 50 cm across which has used the clay balls. I found others where they used poor quality stones, possibly from the lake edge, as the lining of the hearth. They may also have brought dilly bags of poor stones from the other side of the lake just for hearths. The clay from termite mounds was also used.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




hearth
This tool, possibly a point used to open mussels, was left beside the hearth above. It is to the far left of the photo above.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




hearth
This hearth had begun to be dispersed by water and wind. It seems to me that the weather breaks up the clay balls fairly quickly into smaller pieces, after exposure to the elements.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




erosion
Parts of the lunette are being very actively eroded, especially by water. Note the small bush which has been undermined, and is hanging down the sand face.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009


erosion
At least the erosion exposes things such as these hearths in the sand face of the photo above, with their clay balls used to help cook game in earth ovens.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




hearthstones hearthstone
Occasionally the hearths were made of poor quality stone, useless for tool making, but better than clay balls for earth ovens, since they presumably retain more heat.

The stone in closeup on the right (to be found at the immediate foreground of the general shot on the left) is typical of the stones I found in earth ovens. They are usually blackened, often with the white deposit so obvious in this photograph.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




hearthstone
Hearthstones were usually quite small, often no more than six or seven centimetres in their longest dimension.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009









Cooking with a Compass

Many fireplaces can be found around the Willandra Lakes area. These ancient ovens not only reveal the ways early inhabitants of Mungo cooked their food. Scientific research of the fired lumps of clay found in these hearths proved that the earth changed its magnetic field.

When north was east-south-east

Barbetti's Hearth
(This is identified at the Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre as a photo of Barbetti's hearth - layered charcoal on a baked clay bed. Scattered clay balls surround it.)

In 1973 Dr Michael Barbetti (Barbetti et al, 1973) provided the first new dating method of ancient Aboriginal fireplaces.

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




compass anomaly




The study of clay lumps found in fireplaces revealed an amazing phenomenon. The clay lumps act like a compass - recording the direction of the earth's magnetic field at the time of heating and use. From studies of Mungo's clay lumps, it was discovered that the earth changed its magnetic field about 30 000 years ago. This event has been termed the 'Mungo Excursion'.

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre




Edited abstract from: Barbetti et al (1976):

Archaeomagnetic studies have been made of prehistoric aboriginal fireplaces occurring along the ancient shore of Lake Mungo, a dried out lake in southeastern Australia. Directions of magnetization preserved in ovenstones and baked hearths show that wide departures of up to 120 degrees from the axial dipole field direction occurred about 30 000 years ago.

The geomagnetic excursion of up to 120° recorded between at least 30 780 ± 520 and 28 140 ± 370 years BP on the conventional radiocarbon time scale is associated with very high field strengths between 1 and 2 Oe (1 Oe ≈ 79.6 A m-1). The field strength subsequently decreased to between 0.2 and 0.3 Oe after the excursion. This main excursion is referred to as the Lake Mungo geomagnetic excursion. There is evidence that a second excursion associated with low field strengths of 0.1-0.2 Oe occurred around 26 000 years b.p. A review of geomagnetic excursions less than 40 000 years in age shows that it may be premature to assume that these are world-wide synchronous features. The range of ages and their groupings in different parts of the world may indicate they are temporary non-dipole features of continental extent. However, the duration of most excursions (order of 103 years) is very similar to that of polarity transitions and this could indicate they are aborted reversals.

 Hearth


Remains of an ancient hearth mound found on the Mungo Lunette.

The eroded remains of three varieties of fireplaces found at Mungo National Park are:

Ovens: consist of cooking stones (or lumps of baked clay balls or broken termite nests) arranged on top of a thin layer of ash and charcoal in a shallow depression.

Hearths: are areas of blackened earth without heat retaining stones, resulting from an open fire.

Mounds: consist of baked clay heaped above layers of charcoal and ash below. Their purpose is unknown.



Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre









Other dating methods and background



Edited extract from Gillespie (2002):

Mungo is one of the icons of Australian archaeology; Lake Mungo is one of a series of large lakes formerly part of the Murray-Darling river system that drains a large fraction of eastern Australia. These Willandra lakes are now permanently dry, but during the Late Pleistocene they contained large quantities of fresh water which attracted some of the earliest residents. A National Park and World Heritage Area is centred on Lake Mungo, reflecting the wealth of archaeology and environmental history.

Large-scale archaeological excavations were carried out in the early 1970s near the south end of the Mungo lunette, penetrating more than 2 metres to sterile sands. TL dating of heated sediments from under, and heat retainers within, hearths in the Mungo lunette overlap with calibrated 14C dates on charcoal from the same fireplaces in the range 34 ± 3 ka. This period of human occupation coincides with deposition of Arumpo Unit sediments although the hearths are dug into older units.

The oldest 14C dates on charcoal, emu eggshell, lacustrine shell, and fish otolith at 40 ± 3 ka are from locations close to a transition zone in the lunettes, where clay-rich sediments derived from the lake floor during times of lower, fluctuating water levels (Upper Mungo Unit) overlie quartz dominant sediments from a high lake level phase (Lower Mungo Unit). TL dates on unheated sediments are widely scattered and not consistent with the 14C record. Ongoing new work suggests that the Upper Mungo occupation horizons are close to 44 ka.

Sahul Coastline






Map of the Australian region showing the extended Sahul landmass at Last Glacial Maximum (20 000–24 000 BP) and 14 000 BP (as proxy for Marine Isotope Stage 3), modified after Smith (1998).

Photo and caption: Gillespie (2002)





Otoliths
Each time strong winds or rain occur in the Willandra region more evidence of the past is uncovered on the lunettes.

Some of that evidence is tiny but provides a great story. From the small otoliths (or 'ear stones') of the Golden Perch or Murray Cod scientists can tell how much the fish weighed and their exact age at death.

The otoliths have microscopic growth bands, much like tree rings. These bands also preserve details of water chemistry at the time. So not only can we learn about lake temperatures and salinity, we can even know in which season the fish was caught.

Source: Display, Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre











Tools and ecosystems from the lunette where the loop road crosses it at the south end of Lake Mungo

tool
Tool - a combination scraper and point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
Scraper.

In 2009 I began taking taking photos of the tools in a larger format, and with a camera which permitted high quality close-ups, giving a much better look at the surface of the tools, and allowing an estimate of their granularity.

As can be seen here, the residents here had very poor materials to work with. Fine work was impossible. All that could be accomplished was the production of strictly utilitarian tools which did the job, not works of art.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
This was originally a point, now with the point broken off, probably used for opening shells. These tools form the majority of types in some areas of the lunettes.

Some, like this one, had little care lavished on their production.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
These sub-triangular remnants of tools are very common, and were obviously the easiest to manufacture for a range of uses. Many are possibly the remains of broken points for opening mussel shells.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool tool


tool tool tool


tool
Various scrapers, knives, and flakes.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool tool


tool tool
Scrapers

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
It is unusual to find a pebble such as this, of apparently tool quality stone, but unchanged in form. It may have been in the toolkit as a core ready for use as necessary.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
The area has been badly degraded by erosion. The landscape alternates between broad, flat, hard surfaced bare areas like this, and "badlands" areas with heavily furrowed slopes.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
This stone is of such poor quality its only use would have been as part of a hearth.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool
This is an unusually shaped stone, shown at left in situ. It appears to have a bulb of percussion with a fringing flat area, presumably as the wave front of the blow which created it reached a cleavage plane deeper in the core.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
This is a particularly homogenous piece of pink silcrete, fashioned into a knife/scraper. Such good quality stone is rare. My heart bleeds for the knappers of Mungo. They would have been overjoyed to get good quality flint to work with. As it was, they made the best of what they had.

When the Overland Telegraph Line was put in across Australia in 1872, a 3200 km telegraph line that connected Darwin with Port Augusta in South Australia, the builders had a lot of trouble at first with the Aborigines taking the ceramic insulators to use for stone tools. They also took lengths of wire from the line to fix stone axe heads to handles. The workmen finally decided to leave behind off cuts of wire and broken insulators at the foot of the poles whenever they went to repair faults in the desert country, and the incidence of line faults dropped by 80% in three months, a fine example of lateral thinking.

Text above adapted from: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ss/stories/s1515660.htm

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This fine scraper was nearby, again made from relatively good quality white silcrete, or at least as good as was available.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This is a well-worn point, no doubt worn from opening hundreds or thousands of mussel shells. It has lost all its sharp edges, but would still have been a useful tool.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

An enigmatic tool, a pebble with only a few flakes struck from it, as though the knapper decided it was not worth persisting with, yet it seemed to me to be no worse than most materials used for tools.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This is the best blade I have found at Mungo. The knappers were capable of good work when they had half way decent materials to work with. This piece of silcrete is about as good as the raw material ever got.

Note that there is no evidence of retouch on the blade. With silcrete, you typically get one chance only to make a good tool, and retouch to improve the shape or utility of the tool is rarely attempted.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
Typically the landscape has a standard cross section from the top to the lake bed.

This photo shows the first two of these gradations.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

A roughly made though serviceable point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Knife.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This piece demonstrates the same lack of homogeneity of fracture displayed in the "bulb of percussion" piece I have described above. In this case a utilitarian scraper has resulted.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Scraper showing the oxidised outer surface of the original silcrete pebble used for the tool. Trace amounts of iron give the red colour to the stone when exposed to the elements for long periods.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Scraper.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Poor materials and a poor tool, only useful because of its relatively large size. The cortex shows that the original pebble spent a lot of time exposed to the elements or to scarifying ground waters.

In fact, it looks more like an original pebble demonstrating wear when used to prise apart fresh water mussels than a properly knapped tool.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This scraper shows more flakes knocked off it to make a useful tool than is normal in the Mungo toolkit.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

A pretty and delicate little point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Spinifex. There was probably very little of this, if any, at the time when Lake Mungo was full. It produces a thermoplastic resin which is very useful for attaching tools to handles, especially when combined with twine.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Trees struggle to survive in these difficult conditions, and one that has succumbed can be seen beside this tree valiantly struggling against the odds.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This photo on top of the lunette shows the appearance of fresh green shoots. They may be only annuals, and introduced weeds at that, but at least they stop the soil blowing away for a time. Eventually the lunette will be revegetated, so long as the feral animals can be kept in check, but it is a long slow process. The Australian desert landscape/ecosystem is a very fragile one.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009









The Northern Lunette

These tools, shells, bones and location shots are from the northern part of the lunette, where the road comes back across the lunette from its route behind the sandhills, and drops down to the lake.




erosion surface

Here we see again the typical erosion surface so evident at the Walls of China.

The top of the lunette, though eroded, has some vegetation. The isolated erosion artefact and the rest of the hard 'pavement' has little or none.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Knife with some evidence of coarse retouching to give a somewhat denticulate, sawing edge. As always, the quality of the stone precluded fine work.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool
This piece, found close by the tool above, shows much more obvious retouching to give a coarse denticulate edge.

It would be good to talk to these ancient toolmakers about the problems they faced, and the methods they used to get workable tools. What is certain is that they knew what good material was.

There is evidence from early white contact times that there were thriving trade routes between groups of tribes, and there was trade from the very north of Australia to the very south of the main continent.



One presumes that they accepted that for workaday materials, they had to use what nature had provided. Certainly there were compensations. A long chain of large, permanent, fresh water lakes far from the coast is a luxury which is worth enduring some minor privations to have. Better a highly productive area of fish, shellfish, marsupials, food plants, reptiles and birds but with poor stone tools than the finest stone materiel nature can provide combined with desert conditions, few food plants and poor hunting.

They almost certainly had 'status' stone knives of superb quality. These are known to have been traded from areas where fine quality flint or quartz was readily available to places with poorer materials.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool

Burin with a tip blunted from use.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool tool

Scrapers. Many of these have a square or rectangular plan view.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Point, blunted with use.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Blackened hearth stones as well as some tools.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Small hill showing furrowing by rain.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Scraper. The shadow shows the roughly rectangular shape of the tool.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Although this tool is of potentially much better material, quartzite rather than silcrete, unfortunately it has poor cleavage patterns, making it almost useless as a tool.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This is a very odd tool indeed. Possibly a scraper, every single edge seems to have become rounded, as though it had been made of butter and sat in the sun too long. It cannot be water worn, there are no streams to roll in, and silcrete is immune to pretty much any environment.

It is a very puzzling tool, any guesses as to its present rounded shape are welcome.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




view

Looking out over the dry Lake Mungo. Just a slight difference in slope makes all the difference to the landscape. From a highly eroded and apparently unrecoverable dune to the well vegetated lake bottom is a matter of only a few metres.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This point, probably used for opening mussel shells, has been only minimally altered for the task, and may not have been altered at all, but has simply worn at the tip from use.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




mussel shell

Mussel shell, possibly 40 000 years old.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




Kangaroo bone

Kangaroo bone in situ, possibly 40 000 years old.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




bones bones bones


bones bones bones

Various bones weathering out of the sandy sediments in close proximity, from an ancient bone midden.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

Another white quartz tool, but of better quality stone, made into a double point, possibly burins.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool tool

One of the classic 'finger' tools, presumably used for opening mussel shells. There appear to be two quite distinct tools for opening mussel shells, a simple point often with triangular cross section, and this 'finger' form.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




Mussel shell

Mussel shell in situ.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

A simple but effective point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




Mussel shell

Mussel shell.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




bones and shells bones and shells bones and shells

There was a long line of bones and shells leading up to the hill in the background, weathering out at the surface of the sand and clay pavement.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




Hillocks


Hillocks Hillocks

Hillocks left by erosion, some with vegetation, some without, with the lake bed in the background.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




bird hollow

Hollow in the sandy hillock on the left image above, used by a bird as a refuge or nest, as can be seen from the droppings on the face of the hillock.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




point

Point with the end broken off, showing the sub-triangular cross section of the tool.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




hillocks

The hillocks record the sand and clay blown onto the lunette at times when the lake was dry. The lake has filled and emptied many, many times. When it emptied, most of the inhabitants had to fall back to the coast or rivers in order to survive. When dry, the lake area could not support so many hunter gatherers.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool

This tool has acquired a patina of white material. It is a point with the tip broken off, with the common triangular cross section which served the toolmakers so well.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




shell
Mussel shell weathering out of the sediments. When Mungo was last full (about 15 000 years ago), Sydney Harbour was a wooded valley 30km inland and Tasmania was at best the Apple Peninsula. Europe was shivering in the Ice Age, Lascaux was the latest contemporary art gallery and people had just started migrating to the Americas. Meanwhile, the long-established Lake Mungo folk were busy cooking Murray cod and golden perch in campfires, traces of which remain as dark smudges in the lunettes.

Text: http://travelinsider.qantas.com.au/mungo_moondance.htm

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




tool
The pattern of wind blown sand augmenting the lunettes has begun again, but this time the material is not coming from the lake bed, but from the sediments eroded from the lunette itself, laid bare because of overgrazing and feral animals such as goats and rabbits.

The sand and clay from the lunettes gets as far as the lake edge, but then since it is unconsolidated, it is liable to wind erosion from the prevailing westerly winds. This sand and clay is now, in places, surrounding and engulfing the ancient sediments as shown here, where this 40 000 year old hillock of sediments is surrounded by freshly redeposited sediments, some no doubt from the hillock itself.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




erosion surface erosion surface

The red Gol Gol layer shown here contains the oldest sediments. It predates human occupation of Lake Mungo. Above the Gol Gol layer is the greyish brown Mungo layer, which is 45 000 to 25 000 years old. At the top is the pale brown to whitish Zanci layer, 25 000 to 15 000 years old.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




bone bone

Bone sticking out of the lunette, (circled in situ in the left hand photograph). The end may have been altered by man, but it is difficult to be sure.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009




hearth stones

Black hearth stones. These were used to hold the heat when a fire was built on them, the coals removed, meat put on the hot rocks, then covered with more rocks and earth until the earth oven was opened some hours later to reveal cooked meat. Cooking makes more of the nutrients available for absorption by the digestive system, as well as making food more tasty, in most cases.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2009









Mungo burin
Burin or point of silcrete from Lake Mungo, about 7 cm across. This is one of the finest tools I found in the area, it is beautifully made.

All silcrete on the "Walls of China" was carried there by aborigines from the western side of the lake. There is no silcrete available on the eastern side of Lake Mungo.

This tool would originally have had a sharp and narrow point possibly for making holes in leather, which has broken off, and the tool was then thrown away.

The tools are often elegantly made, with the minimum of flakes being removed, and no evidence of retouching. Some have been made by master craftsmen with total control of the sub-standard material.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


Mungo core

Stone core showing a negative bulb of percussion from a previous blow to remove a flake, and a whelk shell from the lake.

I can imagine the craftsman making tools from the core, and sucking the meat from the shell as he worked.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


Mungo scraper

Probably a scraper, used in the initial preparation of hides by scraping off the fat on the inside of the skin. This is a beautiful piece of work, done with complete mastery of the admittedly poor material.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


Unidentified artefact Probably a knife or a wide scraper, about 7 cm across.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


Unidentified artefact

A core and what looks like burnt clay or termite mound from an ancient hearth.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


burin
Most likely a burin with the point broken off, or less likely a broken point used to open mussels. Note the oxidation bands still showing from the original pebble from which the tool was made, and the burnt clay from the hearth near which it was laid down.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


burin
The burin above in situ, with apparently burnt, blackened stones and burnt clay.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


hearth
Hearth in situ near the edge of the lake.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


midden
Midden of shells collected from the time when Lake Mungo was full of water. They look like they could have been opened and eaten just a few years ago.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


core in situ
Silcrete tool core in situ poking out from a vertical cut in the sediments. The scarcity of such objects compared with the relative abundance of tools and cores lying on the surface illustrates the effectiveness of the winnowing process of rain and wind in exposing the artefacts.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


core
Silcrete core.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


blade
Silcrete blade.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


toolstools
Tools winnowed to the surface by wind and water.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


burin
Burin and one of the ubiquitous caterpillars!

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


shell
Shell from a midden looking as though it is only a year or two old - but it is tens of thousands of years since the lake had enough water to provide habitat for shells of this kind.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


tool
A broken point, probably originally made to open mussel shells.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


tool
Point.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


tool
Tool.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005




hearth
The burnt clay remains of a hearth.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


hearth
A tool left behind in a hearth.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


hearth
A tool left behind in a hearth.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


glass blades
Aborigines were quick to make use of better materials as they became available. After white contact, when glass bottles became available, but before steel knives were common, they made beautiful objects such as these knives from the superior material. Glass bottle bases provide a defect-free material which gives the skilled user complete control.

Display: Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


blade
A well made blade.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


tools
Tools exposed on a crusted surface.
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


core
Multicoloured core.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


tetragon
Tetragon shaped tool, or part of one.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005







The quarry - the western side of the lake, where there is an outcrop of silcrete pebbles


silcrete pebble
Silcrete pebble such as would have been used to make the tools.
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


silcrete pebble
Large silcrete pebble.
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


silcrete pebble
Large silcrete pebble.
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005


silcrete pebble
Field of silcrete pebbles.
Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005







muller and grinder
This photo shows a coolamon, or container, with a grinding stone. The coolamon contains seeds in this display.

The muller referred to on the label is the upper, hand-held grindstone, out of frame in this photo.

In the semi-arid to arid regions of Australia, seed-foods were a major food staple. Aboriginal women made flour from a range of different plant seeds, including those of native grasses, some trees, shrubs, succulents and even ferns. The flour made from these seeds was an extremely nutritious high-energy food that was of vital importance in regions where other more easily processed plant foods were not readily available.

Aboriginal women developed an intricate method of processing the seeds they gathered. Collected material was placed in a coolamon (elongated wooden dish) and skilfully rocked and flicked to separate material of different densities (such as leaves, twigs and sand) so the seeds were easily extracted. Seeds were then winnowed by being rubbed together in handfuls and dropped a short height over the coolamon to allow the fine outer husks to blow away. The seeds were then ground into a meal or flour using a millstone (lower grindstone) and muller (hand-held upper stone) set.

Text: From the Australian Museum website,
http://www.amonline.net.au/snapshots/arid/bakers.htm

Display: Lake Mungo NPWS interpretation centre

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2005




References

  1. Barbetti M., McElhinny M., 1976. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Vol. 281, No. 1305 (May 20, 1976), pp. 515-542
  2. Barbetti M., Polach H., 1973. ANU radiocarbon datelist V. Radiocarbon 15(2):241–51.
  3. Gillespie, R., 2002: Dating the first Australians, Radiocarbon, Vol 44, Nr 2, 2002, p 455 - 472

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