New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia

Abstract

Australia's oldest human remains, found at Lake Mungo, include the world's oldest ritual ochre burial (Mungo III)1 and the first recorded cremation (Mungo I)2. Until now, the importance of these finds has been constrained by limited chronologies and palaeoenvironmental information3. Mungo III, the source of the world's oldest human mitochondrial DNA4, has been variously estimated at 30 thousand years (kyr) old1, 42–45 kyr old5,6 and 62 ± 6 kyr old7,8, while radiocarbon estimates placed the Mungo I cremation near 20–26 kyr ago2,9,10. Here we report a new series of 25 optical ages showing that both burials occurred at 40 ± 2 kyr ago and that humans were present at Lake Mungo by 50–46 kyr ago, synchronously with, or soon after, initial occupation of northern11,12 and western Australia13. Stratigraphic evidence indicates fluctuations between lake-full and drier conditions from 50 to 40 kyr ago, simultaneously with increased dust deposition, human arrival and continent-wide extinction of the megafauna14,15. This was followed by sustained aridity between 40 and 30 kyr ago. This new chronology corrects previous estimates for human burials at this important site and provides a new picture of Homo sapiens adapting to deteriorating climate in the world's driest inhabited continent.

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Figure 1: Location of study area.
Figure 2: Stratigraphic units and age ranges of sites.
Figure 3: Major hydrological changes and main archaeological and megafaunal features of sites.

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Acknowledgements

This project was funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage (administered by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service) with the support of the three traditional tribal groups of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. Delayed neutron activation analyses were assisted by a grant from the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering. We thank M. Pappin for co-ordinating indigenous contacts; M. Cupper, P. Hope, R. Gillespie, G. Robertson, J. Pappin, B. Mitchell, J. Kennedy and P. Lawson for field assistance; N. Hill, D. Questiaux and H. Yoshida for laboratory assistance. We also thank the Australian Research Council for supporting R.G.R. with a Senior Research Fellowship.Author contributions J.M.B. managed the overall project and the geological components, and wrote the initial draft of this report; R.G.R. and N.A.S. carried out the OSL analyses; J.M.O., J.R.P. and N.A.S. made the dosimetry measurements; and H.J. and W.S. supervised the archaeological components.

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Correspondence to James M. Bowler.

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Bowler, J., Johnston, H., Olley, J. et al. New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia. Nature 421, 837–840 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01383

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