Human Cognition: The Australian Evidence

By Mulvaney, John | Antiquity, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Human Cognition: The Australian Evidence


Mulvaney, John, Antiquity


Burials

Renfrew (2007: 85) mentions the antiquity of the Lake Mungo burials, but not their implications for human self-awareness. He accepts the "undoubted evidence" for Australian Pleistocene rock art, but dismisses it as "simple", "not yet the more complicated depictions of groups of figures seen in more recent Aboriginal art" (2007: 82, 100). Only in Namibia, he believes (2007: 100), "can naturalistic paintings of animals be documented as early as 26,000 years ago". While the precise dating of Australian rock art is problematic, both these points merit closer attention.

The two best-documented Pleistocene burials were excavated at Lake Mungo, NSW, in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area. They were discovered by Jim Bowler, an observant geomorphologist, who reconstructed the environmental history of the region (Bowler 1998). His 1969 find was a cremation burial of a young woman, 'Mungo Lady' in Aboriginal parlance. In 1974 he located an adult male inhumation. Both are undoubted Homo sapiens, and the age of both interments, determined from a group of internally consistent dates, is evaluated as 40 000 [+ or -] 2000 years (Bowler, pers. comm.; Bowler et al. 2003).

Fragments of human bone commonly erode from the lunettes bordering the various Willandra Lakes. Stephen Webb published a register of eroded fragments totalling 134 individuals (Webb 1989; Westaway 2006) of cremated or unburnt human remains, most presumed to have eroded from the Late Glacial lunettes. Evidently both cremation and inhumation practices were widespread. Due to the sensitivities of the Aboriginal Elders Council, excavation of human remains has virtually ceased. At least 50 other remains lie in situ, and erosion poses a serious challenge to their survival (Westaway 2006: 129), which Aboriginal people and archaeologists must resolve, as it has global ramifications in addition to regional implications for humanity.

The cremation (WLH1) was a deliberate activity. Excavations in 1969 (Bowler et al. 1970) established that the female's residual cremated remains were smashed and then pushed into a hole, where the hot ashes charred the newly fractured bones. When the extended inhumation (WLH3) was excavated, it was evident that before the man's grave was infilled, the corpse had been sprinkled with red pigment. The torso and underlying sand were impregnated. From the extensive staining, it was estimated (Bowler 1998: 151) that a minimum of 1kg of ochre was used.

The cultural implications of these two complex, ancient burial procedures are impressive. Both disposal rites testify to what Renfrew (2007: 84) termed "enhanced self-consciousness." Whatever motivated these laborious interments, they surely involved emotions reflecting modern human feelings--such as love, respect, hate or fear. They symbolise societal concern for the correct or ritual disposal of the dead.

The application of pigment also signifies a further symbolic component. Significantly, the nearest source of the haematite appears to be the Proterozoic rocks of the Broken Hill-Olary region, some 200km distant (Bowler 1998: 151). This vital clue suggests that 40 000 years ago Lake Mungo people knew of, and exploited, relevant geological sources, with a procurement system operating across this considerable distance. Familiarity with their landscape and its resources, together with an ability to adapt to local conditions imply culturally determined patterns of behaviour, surely facilitated by language. Was a system for exchanging useful goods already in operation?

This south-eastern continental area is some 2500km from the modern north-western or Cape York coasts and during the Pleistocene low sea-levels made the landfall of Australia's first colonists (from watercraft) even more distant. A presently acceptable date for the first landing on this first 'Australia Day' is 50 000 years ago. Presumably, culturally determined behaviour, including language, constituted part of the intellectual baggage of these voyagers, who had far still to travel in time and space to reach Lake Mungo.

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