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Secrets of the Dunes

6 minute read

They were in the wrong place, but Steve Webb’s archaeology class decided to stay anyway. A colleague had mistakenly taken them to a site they’d never visited before, a nondescript-looking claypan lost among the pale dunes in the Willandra Lakes region of far western New South Wales. Luckily, Webb thought it would still make good practice fieldwork for his Aboriginal students after a week of classes in the nearby town of Mildura. He was walking behind one of them, 26-year-old Mary Pappin Jr., when she called out that she’d seen something. What she’d spotted on the wind-blown surface looked like a footprint. “We’d all been walking over it,” her mother Mary says proudly. “But that little one saw it.”

What she’d chanced upon is still hard to believe – not only the first Ice Age fossilized human footprints found in Australia, but the largest collection ever found anywhere. “You just don’t get this sort of archaeological signature,” says Michael Westaway, executive officer of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. “This is a story, really, for everybody.” Today the prints look as sharp as if their makers had just hurried over the top of the nearest dune. “Almost as good as a footprint in wet sand,” Webb says. Since the 2003 find, which was announced last December, his team has uncovered around 460 human prints crisscrossing the site like the traces of a peak-hour crowd, many deeply impressed in the sediment, clearly showing where mud once squished between toes. From their size and the distance between them, Webb and his team have formed a rough picture of 23 individuals who traversed what would have been a wet landscape between 19,000 and 23,000 years ago. A child wanders alone, a little way off from a group. Intersecting their paths is a one-legged man whose confident pace gives no clue as to how he propelled himself, and four tall men running fast, their heels skidding as they sped – were they hunters or prey?

Today the landscape they knew looks empty but for lonely turrets of sediment eaten away by the weather and dunes shimmering under a scalding sky. Parched flocks of galahs drift on the hot wind. Yet the Willandra Lakes region, which in 1981 became a 240,000-hectare World Heritage Area, has in the past 30 years yielded astounding archaeological treasures. In 1968 the dunes surrendered Mungo Lady, the skeletal remains of a young woman whose burial site remains the oldest evidence of cremation ever found. The ocher-covered bones of the world’s oldest known ritual burial, Mungo Man, were discovered in 1974, and since then more than 150 human burials – most of them more than 10,000 years old – have been unearthed, as well as shell-strewn middens, hearths and the bones of extinct megafauna. Webb, professor of Australian Studies at Bond University, has studied the area for more than 20 years. “I’ve traveled all over Australia,” he says, “and I don’t know of anywhere that even comes up to the ankles of this place.”

Just over an hour’s drive from Mildura’s sprinkler-fed lawns and orange groves, the Willandra is starkly arid. But it wasn’t always so forbidding. For thousands of years during the last Ice Age, when it was possible to walk from Tasmania to Papua New Guinea, water was everywhere, with a series of five large, interconnected lakes and 14 smaller ones offering a rich larder – mussels, golden perch and cod, as well as marsupials and water birds – for communities camped on their shores. As the lakes receded and were refilled, prevailing winds layered sand and clay on their eastern shores into giant crescent-shaped dunes, or lunettes. And by the time the lakes dried permanently about 16,000 years ago, leaving saltbush to claim their abandoned saline beds, the lunettes were like vaults, stacked with the artefacts and bones of people who had lived near them for millennia.

There remain many questions Webb would love to answer – the prints disappear under a large dune, and results from work with ground-penetrating radar last year suggest the site, perhaps the remnants of a series of ponds, extends far beneath it. “They were in a hurry,” he says of the hunters, “and I’d love to catch up with them.” He believes the tracks were probably made within a matter of months and preserved when protective layers of silty clay covered the muddy sediment. And it’s likely that more tracks remain on several underlying layers. “It’s like a layer of pancakes,” he says, “and we can only see the jam on the top.” Other unusual marks could be from implements; Aboriginal trackers from northern Australia are being called in to see what they can make of them.

How much research continues at the site, whose precise location is a tightly kept secret, is up to the three tribes – the Mutthi Mutthi, Barkindji and Ngyiampaa – who jointly manage the area with the N.S.W. National Parks and Wildlife Service. The Aboriginal involvement in Webb’s excavation team reflects thawing relations with the scientific world. After the discoveries of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, whose ages are still fiercely debated, scientists flocked to the area. But in the 1980s, dismayed that artefacts and remains were being taken to museums and universities elsewhere, elders shut down research on human burials. For many years, archaeological study of the Willandra languished. The ban remains in force, but elders say that could change. “The importance of what this landscape holds to the world is very much in our minds,” says Mary Pappin Sr. “But so is making sure we do the right thing by our people.” Like her mother, young Mary believes the prints appeared in order to help the elders find funds for a keeping place and education center: “They came up for a reason.” Being able to store artefacts and bones on their traditional land, and have them studied there, would ease the community’s fears.

Some Aboriginal people want the site opened, because tourism would create much-needed jobs for youths. Others want it reburied, with a replica for visitors. While a management plan is devised, Webb worries about erosion: harsh winds are already starting to damage the trackways. For now, simpler measures are being used. A group of Aboriginal women sit filling dozens of knee-high stockings with hot sand. Barefoot, they then move carefully over the dazzlingly white claypan, its surface cracked like china and scattered with cinnamon-colored sand, placing a stocking on each print to shield it from the weather. “How our people survived,” says Mary Pappin Sr., “is all written here in these sands.” Around her the silent dunes crouch in the sun – guardians, perhaps, of still more extraordinary secrets.

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