Long History, Deep Time

14. Collaborative Histories of the Willandra Lakes

Deepening histories and the deep past

Malcolm Allbrook and Ann McGrath

In the Willandra Lakes region of south-western New South Wales, Australia, research over the past 45 years has created a vivid picture of interactions between humans and their environment spanning an immensely long period of time. The landscape provides an archaeological record of grand proportions, almost unique in its capacity to offer a complex picture of Pleistocene Aboriginal life.1 Understandings of this landscape, and of Australia as a continent and nation, were changed by the unearthing in 1968 of the remains of a young woman who would later become known as Mungo Lady, and who is now estimated to have lived 42,000 years ago. This vital evidence of deep human history emerged due to soil erosion. As well as representing the ancient presence of Homo sapiens, the realisation that it was the earliest known human cremation ignited the interest of the Australian and international scientific community in the region.2 Through scientific research, since 1968, the lands of the Willandra Lakes changed from being conceived as sparsely populated, semi-arid, marginal sheep station country, to a veritable trove of geological and cultural significance. Lake Mungo was considered sufficiently important to become a National Park in 1979, followed in 1981 with the whole Willandra Lakes region being listed as World Heritage – indeed, one of Australia’s first three UNESCO recognised World Heritage Areas – and one recognised for not only the uniqueness of its natural landforms, but also for its cultural significance.3

This paper feeds into a larger discussion on the potential of a deepened scope and temporality for history, as well as a knowledge base that incorporates cross-cultural and population knowledges – ones with diverging experiential and conceptual time frames for historical appreciation. As a study site, the Willandra landscape has largely been the province of geoarchaeological science, an approach that is necessarily cross-disciplinary in that it combines archaeological studies with a wide range of associated disciplines, including geomorphology, stratigraphy, sedimentology and chronology, as well as ecology.4 However, this approach operates in the space called ‘science’ and does not necessarily consider history as a cognate or relevant discipline.

Already, from the 1970s, Indigenous traditional owners of the region were aware of the growing scientific importance of their traditional landscape and of the need for other knowledge bases and values systems to be brought to bear on the evidence. After the initial interventions and involvement of women and men such as Alice Kelly, Tibby Briar, Elsie Jones, Alice Bugmy, Badger Bates and Rod Smith, Aboriginal elders and members of the younger generations have steadily become a vital part of this cross-disciplinary research effort. Three traditional owner groups, the Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji (Barkindji) and Ngyiampaa peoples, each with strong connections to the region, are closely involved in the current system of co-management of the World Heritage Area and Lake Mungo National Park. Along with heritage managers, local community representatives and scientists, they helped negotiate a system whereby any research, scientific or otherwise, in the National Park and World Heritage Area must be endorsed and supported by a Community Management Council made up of a majority of traditional owners, together with representation from the scientific community, pastoral landowners, and the Commonwealth and State governments. This arrangement has brought a high level of Indigenous involvement in research, for example in the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Discovery and Linkage projects, including the archaeological and dating investigations of Rainer Grün and Nicola Stern, and the palaeoanthropological and DNA research of Michael Westaway and others. Research into surface archaeology and into skeletal remains continue, as do joint efforts to establish an interpretive centre and a Keeping Place at Lake Mungo, with the ultimate aim of repatriating the large number of human remains that were previously removed from the region for the purposes of salvage and research.

Despite the significance of this site to Australia’s human history, before the commencement of the ARC-funded research project ‘Australia’s Ancient and Recent Pasts: A History of Lake Mungo’ in August 2011, historians had not been involved in, or sought to undertake intensive on-site research at Lake Mungo.5 This has partly arisen from the disciplinary schism between history and prehistory, and/or history and archaeology. Archaeologist Harry Allen’s chapter in this volume already accounts for some of the history of his own discipline, especially exploring aspects of the chronological framings of archaeological thinking. We do not seek to explore such methodological and conceptual distinctions in any depth here, as they warrant a chapter in themselves. Nonetheless, the explanation that historical studies must rely upon textual evidence, while prehistory and archaeology rely upon digging and unearthing of material evidence, deserves to be revisited. Disciplinary divides are constantly in flux. And, as Alison Bashford has recently pointed out, the story is more plastic than any clear-cut boundaries might suggest. After all, ‘in a tradition of scholarship that has long complicated “prehistory” and “history”’, palaeontologists, prehistorians and archaeologists have written history, historians have written prehistory, and economic historians have attempted to tackle chronologies very different to industrialisation and wealth production.6 Indeed, to back this argument, environmental historians such as Kirsty Douglas have undertaken research on science, landscape, heritage and the uses of the deep past in Australia between 1830 and 2003. Her subsequent book Pictures of Time Beneath (2007) made a significant contribution to eroding the divide between scientific and historical approaches. Her work also contributed to understanding the region, as Lake Mungo was one of three sites featured in her research. The authors’ research project, ‘Australia’s Ancient and Recent Pasts’, has added and expanded such work by bringing the methods of community historical research, including oral and filmic history techniques, biography and cultural mapping, and place-based approaches to the study of Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes.

Historians have been drawn to reconsider the temporal scope of Australian history, particularly the capacity to traverse the ‘great divide’ of 1788 – the point in time where the long, unchanging and undocumented prehistory of the continent was transformed into the well-documented ‘history’ of the Australian nation, based upon written, textual sources. Rapidly rising attention to Aboriginal history, and to sharp-edged political debates over sovereignty, dispossession, resistance and the stolen generations, have created the need for a continental and an inclusive history of nation which should not ignore the much deeper human histories of Australia.

Consequently, a workshop held at the 2006 Australian Historical Association conference in Canberra dwelt upon the question of whether historians were compelled to cede the ancient history of Australia to prehistory, archaeology and the sciences. Should they continue to view this long past as ‘background’ to narratives of human change and dynamism?7 Participant Heather Goodall drew attention to contradictions in the ‘appearance and a presentation of timelessness, which is a very important sense of the longevity of a very long set of civilisations’, but which can thereby render them ‘inaccessible to questions about how change might be understood’. The vast timescales of deep time can ‘awe the imagination to the point of paralysis’, and can only be appreciated, even then imperfectly, by metaphor, as Tom Griffiths has noted: ‘humanity as the last inch of the cosmic mile, the last few seconds before midnight, the skin of paint atop the Eiffel Tower.’8

Joseph Barrell, an American geologist from the turn of the twentieth century, remarked that science can show ‘the flowing landscapes of geologic time … transform from age to age’. However, he elaborated:

the eye of man through all his lifetime sees no change, and his reason is appalled at the thought of duration so vast that the milleniums of written history have not recorded the shifting of even one of the fleeting views whose blendings make the moving picture.9

This consciousness of geological time has led geologists to think ‘in two languages’ and, as American writer John McPhee expressed it, to ‘function on two different scales’:

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in a way you live forever.10

A recently published ‘Conversation’ in the American Historical Review asked four historians to address the question of how the discipline, with its ‘familiar periodizations of historical training’, might come to grips with such seemingly unfathomable questions of temporal scale.11 Temporal categorisations and understandings of deep time connectedness can be reconfigured and enlivened by recognising the deep time manufacture of everyday objects.12 Objects and technologies can play a dynamic role in creating new histories, in human embodiment and in definitions of what makes us human today and in the past.

A history of the Willandra Lakes region proceeds against the immanence of a deep human past that is vividly engraved upon the landscape. This landscape forces the historian to confront an Australian history that predates the European presence by 42,000 years. It is a place where available evidence effectively jumps over the Holocene time-bar, connecting the contemporary Anthropocene world to the human world of the Pleistocene. With its tangible evidence of the world’s changing climate and the life-span of rivers and glaciers, contemporary visitors witness a dry plain with eroding sand dunes, which once teemed with fish and bird life, and hosted an enduring civilisation for tens of thousands of years. A history of such a cultural landscape needs to explore a land occupied by countless generations of people who, as the archaeological record reveals, left bountiful evidence of their lives and lifestyles, most potently the remains of hundreds of their dead. Furthermore, as the work of Jim Bowler and John Magee reveals, the geomorphic record provides a rich physical context for human populations which had to confront the challenges of climate change, the filling and emptying of the Willandra lake system, the Last Glacial Maximum, and transformations of the landscape through the wind-born movement of sand over the ages. Our research on Lake Mungo deals with the implications of this long human history in Australian historiography – in particular the lives and legacies of the ancient people whose interred remains, cooking hearths and tools later surfaced, serving to educate and inform contemporary Australians and international researchers into the human past.

We take up John Mulvaney’s observation in 1975 about the curious reluctance of historians to look beyond 1788, thereby ceding 99.9 per cent of Australia’s human history to prehistorians. The Lake Mungo history seeks to extend more recent insights into the historiography of deep time by Daniel Lord Smail, Andrew Shryock and David Christian, and a number of Australian historians, including Alison Bashford, Libby Robin, Tom Griffiths and Kirsty Douglas.

A study that is located in place, in this case the richly human landscape of Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, reframes the parameters of historical investigation by inviting attention to an extremely longue durée; a history that takes place against a backdrop of geomorphic time, climate change, environmental and climatic fluctuations, and a capacity by modern humans to respond to such changes. In a place such as Lake Mungo, there is a wealth of material for the historian to work with, including an archive of scientific literature accumulated over nearly 50 years of research activity in the region. Its archaeology, hydrology and geomorphology provides an unusually sharp record of human habitation over the longue durée – clear evidence that the human history of Australia began, not in 1788, but over 42,000 years ago. This demands a reframing of the chronology of Australian history. As Mike Smith’s recent study of Australia’s deserts explained, Australian human history is overwhelmingly an Aboriginal history, involving the ‘autonomous development of the hunter-gatherer communities descended from the original late Pleistocene settlers of the “continent”’. Yet it is ‘striking for its austerity’, and relies just as much on ‘context as on material remains’.13

The Willandra Lakes thus provides a rich setting to foreground the human, and as John Mulvaney has recently suggested, to ‘humanise’ the landscape.14 Life stories and life trajectories illuminate the diverse ways in which humans over time have responded to the environment, and the ways they have been connected to and influenced by the landscape. Indigenous custodians, Parks and Heritage managers, scientists and pastoralists tell stories of connection that encompass the deep human history of the Willandra, and their contemporary relationships with this deep past, doing much to deepen historical understandings of the region. Each of the interest groups now taking part in the management of the World Heritage Area expressed these connections according to their own terminologies and worldviews. Sometimes they may be in conflict, yet diverse interests coalesce around a common commitment to manage the heritage of the area.

Over the last 50 years in particular, the Willandra Lakes has been a zone of ‘deep history’ contact, in which people from all kinds of backgrounds have encountered and interacted with one another. Until the first white people started to cross the country in the early nineteenth century, the history of the region was wholly Aboriginal, a place that had been occupied by the Indigenous ancestors of the Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji and Ngyiampaa people since time immemorial. In dramatic fashion, in 1968 the (re)appearance of the burials confirmed a fact long known by contemporary traditional owners – that the ancestors had ‘always’ been in the land. Theirs is a connection that is personal and familiar. As local Indigenous custodians explain, Lady Mungo is like ‘one of the old aunties’, a person known and respected, ‘a queen’ for her people who has, by providing proof to a doubting Australian public of their long-standing connection, done much for their identity and sense of belonging.

To an Indigenous custodian such as Tanya Charles, the life paths of these ancient people are readily imaginable:

It’s like yesterday that our people were still walking across this country. I can’t go back and say hundreds and thousands of years because everything’s like yesterday to me, especially when you’ve still got the spirits around and you can feel their presence of them, just like this fireplace here. I could see five, six people sitting around here having a feed, leaving and then moving on and coming back again on their way to wherever they was heading.15

Yet, despite this deeply felt historical connection, during the first flush of archaeological and scientific inquiry that followed Lady Mungo’s re-emergence, Indigenous interests were barely acknowledged. Harry Allen was among the team who, soon after Jim Bowler had first spotted the fragmented remains of Lady Mungo late in 1968, positively identified her as human. With a sense of awe and wonder, he speaks of how the world greeted a discovery that, ‘virtually overnight’, expanded the human history of Australia from thousands of years to tens of thousands of years – the late Pleistocene. After the archaeological picture of the Willandra Lakes sharpened, Lake Mungo was declared a National Park in 1979, and the whole region a World Heritage Area in 1981. The research community was forced to respond to powerful assertions of Indigenous identity from a small but eloquent coalition of traditional owners. Foremost among these was Alice Kelly, a Mutthi Mutthi woman who had long been an effective advocate for her people in Balranald and who was, by all accounts, a remarkable leader. Kelly initiated contact with scientific researchers, and came to form close friendships with many of the first generation researchers at Lake Mungo, among them Isabel McBryde, Jim Bowler, Alan Thorne and Harry Allen. She played a central role in a crucial period in which archaeology and its associated sciences slowly, sometimes painstakingly, came to recognise the strength of Indigenous connection and historical attachment, and consequently, to shift research and heritage management paradigms.

In essence, Kelly and her colleagues were not surprised by the scientific evidence emerging from the lunettes and dry lakes of the Willandra, for it simply confirmed a known historical reality; they had been taught that their people had ‘always been here’. However, these Aboriginal women elders were still vitally interested in the details of past lives and life paths that the archaeological investigation revealed. Archaeologist Isabel McBryde quickly recognised the strength of Kelly’s arguments and also the potential for rich knowledge exchange. She had already witnessed the practical power of Indigenous people’s landscape knowledge whilst undertaking work at the University of New England. McBryde saw an expanded potential for science and Indigenous knowledge not only to coexist, and cooperate, but to do so productively for all parties. However, the Indigenous custodians were increasingly disturbed about the fact that ancestral remains had been removed from their burial places, and their spirits thus prevented from resting in country. Alice Kelly continued to help mobilise other elders to lobby and campaign for a return of these remains.

Meanwhile, Isabel McBryde invited people such as Alice and Alf Kelly to witness the potential value and the actual practice of respectful research. She and other scientists interested in a more inclusive style of Australian heritage management became scientific pioneers when they offered Indigenous custodians of land the possibility of observing research taking place. Moreover, they supported their demands to gain a right of consent as to whether research would proceed. This could take place before the fact, rather than as a protest, or in the form of litigation as had occurred over the Kow Swamp later Pleistocene remains in Victoria.

In 1992, when Alan Thorne, the palaeontologist who had painstakingly pieced together and reconstructed the fragmented skull of Lady Mungo in his laboratory at The Australian National University, formally returned her remains to the custody of the traditional owners at a ceremony near her burial place, it appeared that a great moment of reconciliation was taking place. A deeply meaningful ceremony was held, and Indigenous people expressed relief that Lady Mungo’s remains had finally been returned. Yet, out of respect for future scientific research, and out of the desire to ensure the remains would not again erode away, the elders remain concerned that she is not yet in an appropriate and permanent resting place.

The management structure that eventually, and sometimes with difficulty, emerged from these hesitant beginnings reflected an evolving sense of mutual recognition and respect, with many people involved in sincere efforts to carry it forward. A determined coalition of Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji and Ngyiampaa traditional owners became powerful advocates for their country and played significant roles in its management. A crucial relationship of reciprocal support emerged with the non-Aboriginal landholders, whose pastoral interests were suddenly threatened by the declaration of world heritage, and the growing scientific profile of the Willandra Lakes. They too expressed a strong attachment to the region, born out of family history, an intimate knowledge and respect for the land and its capacity to provide a livelihood. Like the traditional owners, they shared a suspicion that scientific interests in the Willandra, supported by government, would soon come to subsume their own. In this scenario of potential conflict and suspicion, the role of a number of government officers employed by the NSW Western Lands Commission and the National Parks and Wildlife Service became central to the task of working out a solution. People today speak respectfully of the crucial role played by the late Peter Clark, a former pastoralist as well as a skilled field archaeologist and public servant, who worked to facilitate an agreement between the different parties in the Willandra. Many other government officers have played a part in the recent history of the region and, at the same time, had their life paths altered and enriched by the experience of working there. They, too, speak of the particular power and wonder of the Willandra Lakes as a place that can change life paths and bring deeper understandings, a reminder that there are many different expressions of connection, and that the human history of the region may be intensely personal.

The voices of the Willandra introduce a history that is both long and complex, and goes far beyond the written record in its portrayal of human experiences of the land, including relationships with the deep past. Extensive filmed histories recorded as part of the Australia’s Ancient Pasts ARC project, as well as for the development of the film Message from Mungo (co-directed and produced by Andrew Pike and Ann McGrath), capture the voices of pastoralists, scientists, government officers and Aboriginal people, as they relate family stories, life experiences and histories of connection. Many have been recorded on country, at Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes, or in adjacent towns such as Mildura, Balranald, Wentworth and Dareton.

There is potential for a great deal more place-located oral and filmed history, including through a program of cultural and historical mapping. Oral history provides a process for re-examining the large amount of documentary, archival and photographic evidence held in diverse collecting and archival institutions around Australia, including national bodies such as the National Library, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the National Archives, the universities, newspapers and public media. Such engagement opens up the history of the region and provides room for many different stories and many different experiences. Alongside the defining narratives of the deep past and scientific discovery, for stories of the less-known, there are also diverse stories of more recent visitors to place, including the multicultural band of German scientists and Indian cameleers accompanying Burke and Wills on their ill-fated expedition in 1861, the pastoralists, labourers and shearers on the large runs of the nineteenth century, the Chinese labourers who are credited with building the woolshed at Lake Mungo in 1867, and for giving the Lake Mungo lunette its vernacular name, The Walls of China. Their histories connect a human history of place with a wider diaspora of human mobilities and deeper, placed-based traditions and histories elsewhere.

Oral, audio, and indeed, filmic history techniques, provide powerful testimony to a history of Aboriginal connections, including the past two centuries of colonialism, and for recent generations, the severe disruptions wrought upon culture and family life by government organisations such as the Aborigines Protection Board. Aboriginal histories are themselves diverse, some speaking of being able to stay on the land, on the stations, or moving from place to place, others with life stories dominated by institutions, reserves and missions, and forced separation as children from culture, family and kin. With its evidence of long connection and identity with country, the Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes World Heritage area provides a powerful unifying point for all the voices of the Willandra. Its structures have allowed conflicts over heritage and history to be played out, discussed and managed, if never completely resolved. A resolution to such a history may never be possible.

Scientific research continues, as long as Indigenous custodians agree to provide consent, and as long as they can see benefits such as useful knowledge, participation, consultation, employment and training. Perhaps there is something in the deep past of the region that motivates an impetus to compromise and respect, imperfect though it may be, and subject to an array of pitfalls and challenges. Access to archaeological sites, especially human remains, continues to be contested between the scientists and Indigenous custodians. Local and world experts frequently declare that scientific research in the Willandra has ground to a halt. At times, it has certainly done so. Excavations are restricted, but surface archaeology is being undertaken, as Nicola Stern’s chapter attests. However, it is not only the hurdles of Indigenous protocols that get in the way of scientific liberty. A key obstacle can be the territorial tendencies of some disciplines, their exclusivity and repeated gate-closing. Cases where Indigenous power is exerted to block research receive far more attention than blocks created by competing academics. In coloniser states, this is one of the few areas of the law where researchers must observe Indigenous protocols. These do not necessarily mean the end of research, but they do mean a different approach to research.

As a place of deep history, Lake Mungo induces a sense of wonder at a landscape that is redolent of human meaning and occupation. Although it suggests scales of time that defy most westerners’ ability to comprehend, Indigenous Australians are expert in riding this conceptual gap. If historians in the academy wish to tell the full story of deep human history in all its complexity, they may discover, like certain archaeologists, that a collaborative engagement with Indigenous understandings will enrich the practice of history, and will greatly enhance not only historical understandings of past landscapes, but also of peoples past, including those continuing peoples who persist in creating new histories in this country. Nobody would underrate the complexity of this task. But the sense of wonder may help us defeat the obstacles. After all, the human landscape of Lake Mungo and Willandra Lakes offers a model of how people living in the present manage to cross the imagined divide into deep time. It reveals how disparate groups effectively engage in meaningful ways with a long history that intimately informs contemporary individual and national identity.


Aslanian, Sebouh David, Joyce E Chaplin, Ann McGrath and Kristin Mann 2013, ‘AHR conversation: how size matters: the question of scale in history’, American Historical Review 118(5): 1431–1472.

Australian Historical Association 2006, ‘Can We Write a 60,000 Year History of Australia?’ Paper presented at the Australian Historical Association Conference, Canberra, Australia, 2006.

Bashford, Alison 2013, ‘The Anthropocene is modern history; reflections on climate and Australian deep time’, Australian Historical Studies 44(3): 341–349, DOI:10.1080/1031461X.2013.817454.

Blainey, Geoffrey 1975, Triumph of the Nomads: A History of Ancient Australia, Sun Books, Melbourne.

Bowler, Jim M, Rhys Jones, Harry Allen and Alan G Thorne 1970, ‘Pleistocene human remains from Australia: a living site and human cremation from Lake Mungo, western New South Wales’, World Archaeology 2: 39–60.

Butlin, Noel 1993, Economics and the Dreamtime: A Hypothetical History, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Charles, Tanya, interview by Ann McGrath, October 2011.

Cotton, Charles A 1942, Geomorphology: An Introduction to the Study of Landforms, ,Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd, Christchurch.

David, Bruno 2002, Inscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place, University of Hawaii Press, Hawaii.

David, Bruno 2006, The Social Archaeology of Australian Indigenous Societies, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.

Douglas, Kirsty 2004, ‘Pictures of Time Beneath: Science, Landscape, Heritage and the Uses of the Deep Past in Australia, 1830–2003’, PhD thesis, School of History, The Australian National University, Canberra.

Douglas, Kirsty 2006, ‘Forsaken spot to classic ground: geological heritage in Australia and the recuperative power of the deep past’, Environment and History 12: 269–296.

Douglas, Kirsty 2007, Pictures of Time Beneath: Science, Heritage and the Uses of the Deep Past, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria.

Griffiths, Tom 2000, ‘Social history and deep time’, Tasmanian Historical Studies 7(1): 21–38.

Holdaway, Simon J and Patricia C Fanning 2010, ‘Geoarchaeology in Australia: understanding human-environment interactions’, in Paul Bishop and Brad Pillans (eds), Australian Landscapes, Special Publication 346, Geological Society of London, London.

Johnston, Harvey and Peter Clarke 1998, ‘Willandra Lakes archaeological investigations, 1968–1998’, Archaeology in Oceania 33: 105–119.

McIntyre, Stuart 2009, A Concise History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

McPhee, John 1998, Annals of the Former World, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Mulvaney, John 1975, Prehistory of Australia, Penguin Books, London.

Pike, Andrew and Ann McGrath (dir.) 2014, Message from Mungo, Ronin Films, Canberra.

Smith, Mike 2013, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

1 Johnston and Clarke 1998.

2 Bowler et al. 1970.

3 (accessed 23 July 2014); also Douglas 2006. Along with the Willandra Lakes, the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu were inscribed as Australia’s first entries on the World Heritage list in 1981.

4 Holdaway and Fanning 2010. A more detailed article on the subject of the relationship between history and science at the Willandra Lakes is currently under preparation.

5 Ann McGrath is the lead Chief Investigator and Malcolm Allbrook worked as a Research Associate on this project (DP110103193) from August 2011 until January 2014.

6 Bashford 2013: 343. See also Mulvaney 1975; Blainey 1975; Butlin 1993; McIntyre 2009.

7 ‘Can we write a 60,000 year history of Australia?’ Transcript of a session at the 2006 AHA Conference, Canberra.

8 Douglas 2004: 18; Griffiths 2000: 24.

9 Joseph Barrell, quoted in Cotton 1942.

10 McPhee 1998: 90–91.

11 Aslanian et al. 2013: 1431–1472.

12 Aslanian et al. 2013: 1457.

13 Smith 2013: 1, 13.

14 Mike Smith, pers. comm., March 2013. David 2002, 2006.

15 Tanya Charles, interview by Ann McGrath, October 2011. See also Pike and McGrath 2014.