In this episode, viewers will be given information about how the fossils of the Lake Mungo National Park have been discovered over the years as well as how they were formed. The video provides an understanding of the history and lifestyles of the people who have lived on this land for thousands of years.

Fossil formation (7:49)

Episode 17 – Fossil formation

Warning – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following video may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

(peaceful music)


The Willandra Lakes Region provides powerful fossil evidence of flora, fauna, an ongoing human occupation dating back 45,000 to 60,000 years. The long history of occupation at Mungo, in combination with ideal conditions for preservation of relics, has created an archaeological treasure house.

Daniel Rosendahl – Executive Officer, Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area

Really archaeology, in this landscape, is ubiquitous, which means it's everywhere and it's in everything, and you don't have to look very hard to find it.

Harvey Johnston – Archaeologist, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage

Because it's semi-arid, there's not much ground cover that any disturbance to the surface, as you can see behind us, things blow the sand, the dunes get blown away and things that have been buried in the dunes can easily be exposed. so, as soon as you get a bit of erosion, you get sub-surface sediments being exposed and all the sediments being revealed, including the archaeology.


Willandra Lakes is listed for two criteria on the world heritage list. One of those is cultural value, so, we've got archaeological materials such as ancestral remains, old burial sites. There’re old camping places, campsites, such as big piles of shell, which we call shell middens. And there's also campfires, where you get remains of burnt clay and charcoal, where people have cooked different meals, either big lump of shellfish or emu, kangaroo, waterbird, those sorts of things.

Ivan Johnston – Discovery Ranger, Mungo National Park

But every place where ancestors would have cooked their food, they used to get all the scraps, put them in a little heap. And this heap is known as a midden site. At that period of time, they wouldn't have wouldn't have walked around, tread on the fish bone, would have got poisoned. Or if you were to tread on a mussel shell, they cut your feet. so, when everything was eaten at the fireplace would've been placed in the little midden or the midden site, not in the rubbish tin.


So, what is a fossil and how do they form? A fossil is the impression of a living organism that has been preserved in substances, such as sediments, coal, tar, oil, amber, or frozen in ice. Fossils are formed in a number of different ways, but most are formed when a plant or animal dies in a watery environment and is buried in mud and silt. Soft tissues quickly decompose, leaving the hard bones or shells behind.

The combination of pressure, chemical reactions, and time eventually turns the sediment into rock. As the encased bones decay, minerals seep in, replacing the organic materials cell by cell in a process called petrification. Alternatively, the bones may completely decay, leaving a cast of the organism. The void left behind may then fill with minerals, making a stone replica of the organism.

Lake Mungo is rich in fossil evidence, as thousands of years ago, it was a biodiverse, rich, watery environment providing perfect conditions for fossils to form. When plants and animals died at Lake Mungo, they were buried in wet clay. The clay, containing calcium carbonate, hardened like concrete and a layer of clay and sand protected the remains. The drying up of the Willandra Lakes some 18,500 years ago has allowed the survival of remarkable fossil evidence.


All you see around this sea area, this is one of the big sites going, which is a 33,000-year-old emu egg site. We had strong wind that swept through here, blown all this top soil off, exposed all these burnt emu egg shells. Every season the ancestors would have went out looking for emu eggs, but before they do that, they had to look up in the sky at night-time and to see a dark shadow of that emu in the Milky Way, they knew then that, time to go out and look for emu eggs. And this always happened on today's calendar would be about April, May, June. so, they would've went out, thick vegetation, found eggs, brought them back here, and this is where they cooked them up here. And it's this, all these shells, were about that deep.


Who finds that archaeology is a good question because it's really everyone. Everyone has a go at reporting that, letting essentially the New South Wales government know or letting us know if they've found a new site. so, tourists often report sites that they've seen when they go for walks in the Wall of China say, "oh, I saw this." We have land holders that will let us know. Our national parks there are people who come in and muster the goats. When they're out mustering the goats in kind of remote areas of the national parks, they'll let us know if they've seen something. So, "oh, look, we've seen a site, it's eroding out" and they'll tell us where it is and we can go in and protect it.

We also have some staff who do surveys to go around and visit known sites and just to check on those and make sure that the erosion control that's being put on those sites is working. so, when those staff are out walking around monitoring sites and checking on sites they'll often find new ones.


There are three main types of fossils, body, chemical, and trace. Body fossils are the actual skeletal remains. Many body fossils have been discovered at lake Mungo, including Procoptodawn, a short, fast, giant kangaroo, protemnodon on a large Wallaby, two large Macropus kangaroos, and genyornis, a very stout flightless bird.

The most significant body fossils are Mungo Lady and Mungo Man. They have been dated 42,000 years old, the oldest human remains in Australia and some of the oldest modern humans in the world outside of Africa.

Chemical fossils are the organic compounds and microscopic organisms that have left their mark in the rocks. Trace fossils on the other hand, are impressions of soft animals, plants, and footprints, which have been left as clay hardened.

In 2003, nearly 460 fossilized human footprints were discovered, the largest collection of its kind in the world. The prints were made by children, adolescents and adults, 19,000 to 23,000 years ago in wet clay. This scientific evidence shows that Aboriginal people have lived at Mungo for at least 45,000 years. However, many Aboriginal people say that they have been here even longer, reaching back into the dream time, perhaps forever.

List of sources and acknowledgements

  • Image series: Track-way site. Provided by Matthew Cupper

  • Image: Timeline of Lake Mungo human occupation. Source image retrieved from Human figures by Giovanni Caselli

  • Image: Recreation of Lake Mungo. Provided by Giovanni Caselli

  • Image: Lunette formation from 40,000 years ago to present. Source provided by Professor Jim Bowler

  • Image: Mungo Man archaeological dig site. Provided by Jim Bowler

  • Image: Shell Middens. Provided by Dan Rosendahl

  • Video: Building the Lake Mungo lunette. Provided by National Parks and Wildlife.

  • Image series: Fossil preservation materials. Retrieved from

  • Image: Fossil formation. Source of Genyornis by Peter Trusler

  • Image: Willandra Lakes 45000 years ago. Image retrieved from

  • Video: Forces shaping Willandra Lakes. Provided by National Parks and Wildlife

  • Image: Recreation of megafauna. Provided by ©Australian Postal Corporation 2008. Designer: Peter Trusler.

  • Image: Megafauna and humans. Provided by Michael C Westaway and painted by Laurie Bernie

  • Image: Mungo track-way site map and section map. Map and section provided by Matthew Cupper, Steven Webb. Source of human figures by Giovanni Caselli

  • Narration. Voice over by Amanda Ritchie, Southern Cross School of Distance Education.


NSW Government Public Schools, Learning Systems, DART connections, Southern Cross School of Education. Virtual Excursions 2017.

[End of transcript]

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