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Mungo Lady and Mungo Man

How do we know how old they are?

Rosewood trees at dawn. Photograph © Ian Brown

Dating the Past is a complex area of science that continues to advance. All dating methods have shortcomings and degrees of inaccuracy, and the age of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man has been controversial from the beginning. Before the remains were discovered, scientists thought that Aboriginal people had been in Australia for perhaps 20,000 years, while many Aboriginal people saw themselves as being here forever.

Early estimates of the age of Mungo Man ranged from 28,000 years to 32,000 years. Then in 1999 new methods estimated Mungo Man to have lived some 62,000 years ago, a radical conclusion that was at odds with what was known about human migration across the globe.

In 2003 Harvey Johnston and Professor Jim Bowler brought together a panel of experts to try and settle the debate. Using evidence from a range of optically stimulated luminescence dating methods and four different laboratories, the scientists were able to reach an agreed age. Both Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were 40,000 and up to 42,000 years old. That is where the science stands at present.

This research extends far beyond mere academic interest. Non-indigenous Australians too often have a desperately limited frame of historical reference. The Lake Mungo region provides a record of land and people that we latter day arrivals have failed to incorporate into our own Australian psyche. We have yet to penetrate the depths of time and cultural treasures revealed by those ancestors of indigenous Australians.

Jim Bowler, geologist