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Discovery of the Lake Mungo Skeletons

Jim Bowler was a young geologist studying Australia’s landscape and climate in the Pleistocene epoch (period between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago). He took particular interest in Lake Mungo in the Willandra area because erosion had uncovered ancient sedimentary layers. Studying these layers, he encountered, by chance, the first of the Mungo skeletons.




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Aerial photo of the site.

Photo: Bowler (2005)



Mungo Woman

In July 1968, Jim Bowler noticed some burnt remains encrusted in blocks of soil carbonate. He marked the site and left it for the archaeologist to excavate. In 1969, the team of archaeologists discovered that the bones were buried in calcrete block, which they carefully dug out and took it to the laboratory. Alan Thorne was a physical anthropologist who reconstructed the skull from the 175 bone fragments that had been excavated. This was a skeleton that belonged to a female. We do not know the cause of death but close examination of the bones shows that her body had been cremated.

Mungo Man

Only 400 metres away from the site of Mungo Woman's discovery, Jim Bowler discovered another set of skeletons on February 26, 1974. Buried in sand, it was lying on its back with hands positioned over the pelvis. The bones had been coated in red ochre indicating that this was an aspect of early burial practices.

The remains had not been very well preserved as portions of the skull was missing and the bones were worn down. Although the skeleton is most commonly referred to as Mungo Man, anthropologists note that it’s possible it was female. There is much debate as to the age of Mungo Man however we know that his skeleton is at least 25 000 years old, although it’s possible that Mungo man lived up to 60 000 years ago.
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mungo skeleton
mungo skeleton

Mungo Man

Photo: Sydney Morning Herald

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