Mungo Man and the first inhabitants of Australia

Mungo Man skeleton

Long before European invaders and settlers arrived in Australia in 1788, the aboriginal people had occupied this continent and developed a culture and lifestyle that could sustain them in some harsh environments.

A fascinating recent ABC documentary, First Footprints, gave a deeper insight into the lives of these pioneers.

A brief history of Australian settlement

DNA and archaeological studies indicate that modern humans migrated out of Africa, along the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually reaching the end of land in modern Indonesia about 60,000 years ago. Here ancestors of the Australian aborigines made the sea journey to the north coast of Australia.

Thousands of pieces of rock art, preserved because of the low rainfall and weathering, remain for us today as evidence of their life and culture – drawings of now extinct megafauna, native animals, people, ceremonies and perhaps the first human faces ever found – about 30,000 years ago.

One amazing location is Narwala Gabarnmang in Arnhem Land in northern Australia, where outcropping sandstone has been hollowed out over millennia to create large rock shelters with the roof held up by columns of the remaining rock. The ceiling and walls of these shelters are decorated with amazingly intricate art.

Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter

Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelter – a still from the ABC documentary First Footprints.

Mungo Man

Lake Mungo in western NSW was once a source of water and fish for aboriginal people, but is now desert. Archaeological excavations have revealed a skeleton of a man aged about 50 and laid to rest with his hands crossed, and then sprinkled with red ochre, and the cremation remains of a woman, both dated to about 42,000 years ago. Mungo Man (pictured above) is said to be one of the earliest known skeletons outside Africa, and these two remains are believed to be among the earliest known evidences of funeral rituals.

Pre-history, culture and dating

The dates given for this early settlement of Australia, and of the cave paintings and burials, have been obtained by several different dating methods, argued about, and now generally agreed. This makes these early aboriginal settlers contemporary with Neanderthals in Europe, and some of their artefacts (like sharpened stone axes) among the oldest in the world. The carved rock shelter at Narwala Gabarnmang is dated about 25,000 years before Stonehenge.

It is hard to doubt the antiquity of these artefacts and remains, or of the landscapes they are found in. Yet even this long ago, there is evidence of some form of spirituality or awareness of the possibility of life after death.

Pre-history and christians

I am fascinated by ancient and pre-history, especially in Europe and Australia. I accept the findings of the anthropologists and archaeologists, even though I know some are likely to be revised a little as new information is discovered.

But these discoveries have significant implications for christians who believe in a young earth. If the earth is young as some creationists believe, it is hard to see how there was time for all this settlement to occur, culture to develop and age, and rock shelters to be carved out and painted.

I cannot see how belief in a young earth can be maintained. And the apparently spiritual beliefs of these people suggest that the God who loved them as much as he loves us, must have been active in some way in their culture.

Check it out

I encourage you, if you have any interest in this at all, to view the first episode of First Footprints on ABC iView, or, if you can’t get that where you live, on Youtube. You surely won’t regret it.

You can also read more about Mungo Man and Mungo Lady.

Photo of Mungo Man: Wikipedia

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24 thoughts on “Mungo Man and the first inhabitants of Australia

  1. Eva says:

    So amazingly interesting. My husband and I went to Lake Mungo national park fo our honeymoon; wasn’t that great because I was pregnant so rather narcoleptic. Still, it was my choice of honeymoon destination so it has a special place in my heart.

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  2. unkleE says:

    Hi Chaz, thanks for your links. No I don’t think I am going to do any more to evaluate the YEC arguments, beyond reading your two references.

    I don’t have a problem with the dating discrepancies. I used to work as a hydrologist, and in Australia we have a very variable hydrology. Estimating hydrologic parameters like a flood volume or peak can be very approximate due to insufficient data. I am quite used to seeing a range of estimates, and having to accept something mid-range. If we didn’t do that, we couldn’t do a lot of important hydrology. So the fact that different dating methods on a very old burial with limited dating material give a range of 20-60,000 years doesn’t bother me overmuch. After all, none of the methods gave 4000 years or anything like it!

    And I find it impossible to believe that the Narwala Gabarnmang rock shelters are only 4000 years old. If YEC is true, the aboriginal people had to migrate from Mesoptamia while the rocks laid down in the flood (or earlier) weathered significantly, then in the remaining time left carve out the shelters and paint the walls and roofs – all in about 4000 years! Australian aboriginal nations are only small groups, and living their traditional lifestyle, most of their time would have been taken up in subsisting. These shelters are clearly older than that!

    Thanks for your comment.

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  3. ChazIng says:

    Hi unkleE, assuming a 6,000 year chronology, the Australians (or groups that constitute them) would have left Iraq in 1,750 (re: Peleg). That leaves <4,250 years (let's go with 4,000). If dating gives a range of 24,700-62,000 and 62,000 is the upper variation limit, then the lower limit could be 24,700-37,300 or -12,600 years making +4,000 quite possible.

    Since ancient man (<500 years from creation) was skilled in metal-working (Gen 4:22) which created tools and required ore mining, would not the much later Australians have more than enough knowledge and tools to carve out a cave in a few years (if so long)? So what exactly makes 4,000 years so remarkable? And why do you use 4,000 and not 8,000 (as per a 10,000 year chronology)?

    Also, does "DNA and archaeological studies" DEFINITELY indicate that "modern humans migrated out of Africa" or is this only a POSSIBLE interpretation of the severely limited genetic and archaeological data?

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  4. unkleE says:

    Hi Chaz,

    I somehow think this discussion is going to go in an inevitable direction, would you agree? To test that out, may I first ask you this simple question:

    Is there any scientific evidence anyone could offer that could cause you to change your view on these dates? Or do you regard it as impossible for any scientific evidence to change your interpretation of Genesis?

    If dating gives a range of 24,700-62,000 and 62,000 is the upper variation limit, then the lower limit could be 24,700-37,300 or -12,600 years making +4,000 quite possible.

    I don’t know where you arrive at the calculation of the lower limit, but that isn’t the way the dating works. Various dates were calculated, but they all had much narrower error bands than you suggest – 28-32k, 42-45k, 56-68k, etc. None of them has an error band that goes down below about 20k years.

    Since ancient man (<500 years from creation) was skilled in metal-working (Gen 4:22) which created tools and required ore mining, would not the much later Australians have more than enough knowledge and tools to carve out a cave in a few years (if so long)?

    I have never heard that Australian aboriginals worked metals, this program certainly never mentioned it, and quick Google search reveals nothing. They used spears fashioned from vegetation and stone tools. Have you any evidence of metal usage? If not, this is not a viable suggestion.

    why do you use 4,000 and not 8,000 (as per a 10,000 year chronology)?

    They were the dates in the two sources you referenced. But changing to 8000 years makes little difference, it is still way outside the dating and common sense.

    does “DNA and archaeological studies” DEFINITELY indicate that “modern humans migrated out of Africa” or is this only a POSSIBLE interpretation of the severely limited genetic and archaeological data?

    I don’t suppose it is definite, and there are certainly a couple of theories about origins. But that isn’t important here.

    Chaz, I wonder if it is worth continuing this discussion. Your metal tools comment suggests to me that you are pretty desperate to come up with an answer that fits your interpretation of Genesis. I don’t particularly want to change your view or harm your faith. Wouldn’t it be better for you to just quietly hold to your beliefs rather than have to try to defend them by spurious science? That is your decision, not mine, but I don’t want to be insensitive to you.

    Best wishes.

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  5. ChazIng says:

    Hi unkleE, my reading of Genesis is not scientific as in the non-exegetical sciences (as I have stated before). So my particular interpretation (original author intent) is not affected by scientific data and interpretation. However, your post is about how a YEC worldview does not correlate with a certain non-YEC worldview. It does not pertain to how my exegesis affects my science per se since my points are on simple data manipulation and one verse about early metal-working.

    I understand how YOU view the data range. However, the range does not automatically exclude the YEC dates, which is my point. You are conveniently assuming the ranges show the full bandwidth of different measuring methods. If one does not, a YEC interpretation is a possibility.

    I am always saddened by your cheapening of scripture for scientific validation. If something is explicitly stated in Genesis but not corroborated by scant archaeological data and the historical record, you always default away from the bible. I would propose that a ‘Google search’ methodology has a high probability of not leading to truth.

    It is not outside of the dating but outside of your particular interpretation of the dating results. And common sense does not apply to humans since we can and are easily fooled.

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  6. ChazIng says:

    unkleE, it is not desperation to reference and apply one bible verse. If that were the case, you would be many times more desperate than me (re: Everyone disbelieves some parts of the Bible). Rather, that would be a term applicable to someone who refuses to engage in the two lone Mungo Man YEC responses, easily found through google search (your own methodology I recall).

    I am trying to figure out what science I used to be spurious? All I did was a primary school level subtraction, quote one bible verse and extracted and applied the exegetical data. So what science (method) did I make spurious?

    It is ‘common sense’ to imagine that intelligent Australians were more than capable to move from Iraq to present day Australia in less than 4,000 years, hollow out a cave and make intricate paintings.

    Wouldn’t it be better for you to just quietly hold to your beliefs rather than have to try to defend them by spurious science?

    I would expect that sort of statement from a common atheist unkleE. Quite a shame. Then again, it is highly informative for your readers to know with whom you seem to share an ideological bed.

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  7. unkleE says:

    Hi Chaz, it seems clear I have offended you, and I truly am sorry, that is not how I wish to treat you. It was the expectation of this that led to my initial comment about how I thought our discussion would turn out, and my closing comments in my last post – I was trying to ease out of the discussion without offending you, but it seems I made things worse. I’m sorry.

    You have made it clear you interpret the Bible in a certain, and fairly strict and literal, way. Therefore, you must interpret the science differently than most scientists do, so it fits in.

    I see things differently. I don’t think Genesis 1-3 should be interpreted the way you do, and so I am happy to follow the science where it leads. In this case, the rocks at Narwala Gabarnmang look way more weathered than your timescale would allow, likewise the time it would take to migrate, settle, hollow out the shelters and paint layer upon layer of cave pictures, and the Mungo Man dating supports this conclusion. So I am happy to go with it.

    But I have no particular wish to change your belief. I didn’t write this post to convince you, but to help those who are trying to integrate Bible, history and science. My only comment on your belief was that, if you are going to hold it against the scientific evidence, I think it would be simpler and better to not present arguments like those you did about the range of dates and metal tools, because it seems to me they only undermine your position. But that, in the end, is not my problem, I was just trying to be helpful.

    So please let us continue to discuss other things, but discussing science when you are constrained not to believe in scientific findings seems to me to be a little pointless, and will inevitably lead to this sort of situation. I try to be courteous and respectful, but when things I regard as ill-informed are said, what can I do?

    Let us stay friends. Best wishes.

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  8. Eva says:

    Hey, I’m quite happy to take over arguing with a Creationist- would you like to tag me in? (Just kidding, I’d rather stick a pen in my ear).
    Regarding a mungo, it was an amazing area. Being from Tassie it was my first desert experience, for a start, and that was amazing. It was January which apparently wasn’t tourist season and there wasn’t a great deal of info around, but I’d studied Paleoanthropology at UNE so was reasonably informed.
    I need to go back, I think.

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  9. unkleE says:

    Paleoanthropology!? Amazing! Was that the course, or a subject within a course? I presume the latter. What was the course and major? Did you work in the area of your study? I would think doing any study in that general topic area would be fascinating.

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  10. ChazIng says:

    unkleE, I am not offended, just annoyed by your logic. I don’t interpret the bible literally. I interpret it using the classical exegetical methodology of trying to find the original intent. Unlike you, I am not a syncretist. I don’t care if the bible matches up with science.

    I interpret science according to empirical engineering principles. It does not depend on what I determine from the bible. I have stated this many times before. I really don’t know how to explain this any better. My science does not inform my exegesis and my exegesis does not inform my science.

    You make too many unstated assumptions, most of which cannot be empirically tested. Thus, your conclusions are not scientific. You don’t need to be concerned about my beliefs. The main issue is that your posts are straw-men as you (1.) don’t engage in YEC counter-arguments nor (2.) state your assumptions.

    I am not “constrained not to believe in scientific findings.” This is a smear. Again, quite a shame. By default, a scientist is expected to question all scientific postulates whether they are accepted or not. It is unfortunate, but I don’t think that you are even aware of your assumptions so that would explain why they are not listed or explained.

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  11. ignorantianescia says:

    Maybe UnkleE doesn’t like it if I reply, but I do have a few questions about your posts, eM.

    But first I would like to know whether you have relevant academic qualifications in a subject relevant to this discussion. Holding myself to the same standard, I can disclose I have none and thus rely on academic experts or popular reflections of their work.

    “My science does not inform my exegesis and my exegesis does not inform my science.”

    Does this mean that you are comfortable with it if the Bible and science were to be in contradiction?

    In any case, it is in conflict with what you did above, where you took a Bible verse to argue or speculate about Aboriginal metalurgy, a statement which does intrude into the field of archaeology. Furthermore, you may complain about UnkleE using Google search, but that does not change that the burden of proof is on you to provide reliable sources indicating or arguing for Aboriginal familiarity with metal working.

    “You make too many unstated assumptions, most of which cannot be empirically tested. Thus, your conclusions are not scientific.”

    It might unintendedly come across as curt, but as these are comments on a blog, why should he care about his conclusions being scientific? For scientific conclusions, we should go to peer-reviewed texts or textbooks, not blogs.

    “The main issue is that your posts are straw-men as you (1.) don’t engage in YEC counter-arguments nor (2.) state your assumptions.”

    Neither of the two given reasons indicate a straw man. A straw man is ascribing views to a person that he/she does not hold. Not engaging with counter-arguments does not equate to a straw man argument, nor does not making one’s assumptions explicit.

    Nevertheless, may I ask what you consider the most crucial inexplicit assumptions here?

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  12. ChazIng says:

    Hi ignorantianescia, this post relates broadly to geology (archaeology) for which I do not have BSc+ qualification. However, my issues are with theology and simplistic statistics for which I consider myself proficient. Since this is about worldviews, qualifications are not directly applicable.

    Does this mean that you are comfortable with it if the Bible and science were to be in contradiction?

    I take it that you mean the interpretations of the bible and of science. Sure, what’s there to be uncomfortable about?

    unkleE is using some aspects of geology to create his own logical framework (worldview) and then state that the YEC worldview is inconsistent with it (shocking!). I am arguing that the YEC worldview is not inconsistent with what he has presented. Thus, I am not against the ‘science’ but against his particular interpretation. To that end I have given two links and two simple lines of evidence (one subtraction and one bible verse) that illustrate how the YEC view is not invalidated by his worldview. I am thus under no obligation to find data for ancient Australian metallurgy since it is the YEC worldview he is attacking. If the YEC worldview presumes ancient metallurgy then he cannot attack it by claiming a lack of evidence from his attempts at google search.

    He is using what he considers ‘science’ to bolster his views. I am not the one demanding science. I am stating that he is not using his own science properly and that the science is ignorant on many of the assumptions which he does not list so that his conclusion is not scientific as in not logical. It does not matter if this is a blog, he is the one claiming that I am using “spurious science” so apparently he knows what is scientific and thus would write from that vantage point.

    This is a straw-man from ignorance i.e. by not engaging with what YECs actually believe, he is leaving it to the reader to create their own YEC straw-man based ONLY on his views. To me his most critical assumption is uniformitarianism i.e. the land configuration, living/travelling conditions and erosional rates were the same as they were today or whatever he imagines it to be at the time of Peleg.

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  13. unkleE says:

    Hi Chaz,

    unkleE, I am not offended, just annoyed by your logic.”

    I am glad you are not offended, and I am sorry that you are annoyed at me.

    I am not “constrained not to believe in scientific findings.” This is a smear.”

    Again, I am sorry you feel you have been smeared. I have tried to understand your views. As I understand them, you agree that modern science disagrees with your understanding of Genesis 1-3 at many points, including the dating of Mungo Man and the Narwala Gabarnmang. Logically, that leaves us with several possibilities – (1) believe Genesis 1-3 is historical and disbelieve current scientific conclusions, (2) interpret Genesis 1-3 as non-historical and accept current scientific conclusions, (3) believe neither, or (4) make no decision either way.

    Now I understand you to choose #1 while I choose #2. If I am wrong, please feel free to state which option you choose among these or choose your own wording. If I am right but I didn’t express my understanding to your satisfaction, I am sorry – it wasn’t a smear, it was either my being brief or not understanding correctly.

    But it still seems to me that you are not open to changing your belief about Genesis based on scientific evidence, and so I can’t see how discussion can be profitable. So again, I think we should try to stay friends and talk about something else.

    Is that OK?

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  14. ChazIng says:

    Now I understand you to choose #1 while I choose #2.

    Sigh, no unkleE, I am saying that your argument cannot be sustained based both on your own dating (~20-60k) or theology. I am not personally making HERE any argument for a historical Genesis or an abandonment of current scientific dating. The issue is not my exegesis or science. It is rather, your constant assumption that anyone who pokes holes in your arguments is a YEC and/or anti-science.

    But it still seems to me that you are not open to changing your belief about Genesis based on scientific evidence

    Shifting the burden and misdirection. The issue is the logic of YOUR argument not what I believe or what you think I believe about genesis and/or science.

    I am not a syncretist thus I am not concerned about correlation between Genesis and science. I am concerned that your syncretism is causing you to smear YEC because you are not open to proper exegesis of the text. You are more concerned about scientific validation than what the genesis author meant. That is non-science. To that end, the only one who does not want to change their mind would be you.

    For me, the bottom line is this: the burden is on you to accurately represent the position that you think is incorrect and you have not done so.

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  15. unkleE says:

    Chaz,

    This seems to me to be pointless. Your very first comment asked: “are you going to evaluate YEC arguments about ‘Mungo Man’ such as: dating problems and possible problems for OECs?” A subsequent comment starts “assuming a 6,000 year chronology …” and goes on to discuss how Mungo Man dating could be fitted into that. One of your references says: “But the Bible records our true human history.”

    Now you say “I am not personally making HERE any argument for a historical Genesis or an abandonment of current scientific dating.” I cannot see how that statement can be true in the light of the earlier ones.

    Furthermore, I have quickly scanned back through your comments and the two references, and while you and they make the correct point that there has been great variability in the dating attempts, I cannot see anywhere that either you or they offer any reason to doubt the current dating range except that it doesn’t agree with Genesis 1-3.

    I am trying to respond respectfully to what you say, not to a stereotype, and to avoid getting into an interminable argument which goes nowhere. We disagree about our interpretation of Genesis, you don’t accept the science, and you have said some things that seem to have no basis and/or are contradictory.

    Why do you wish to continue the discussion? It has not led anywhere helpful, as I predicted, so why do you want to keep going?

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  16. ignorantianescia says:

    I am concerned that your syncretism is causing you to smear YEC because you are not open to proper exegesis of the text.

    Just curious, how does proper exegesis of the text lead to YEC?

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  17. ChazIng says:

    unkleE, I asked if you were going to evaluate the two links because you should have done so. That is not to say that I agree with the arguments therein. I assumed a 6k chronology because that is what YOU were critiquing, not because I advocate such. Thus, your inability to differentiate between a person’s arguments and their views makes for what I have claimed: that you are assuming “that anyone who pokes holes in your arguments is a YEC and/or anti-science.”

    I have specifically argued that the dating ranges do not necessarily contradict a YEC framework. Thus, your claim that the links and I have ONLY argued that the dates contradict Gen 1-3 is demonstrably incorrect. To me, this repeated example of your logic has been very helpful. I can now better understand how syncretists use data conveniently.

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  18. ChazIng says:

    I am not particularly concerned about the age of the earth/universe, so I’ll keep this to the process of biological evolution:

    All things reproduce “after their own kind” would invalidate both macro and micro evolution (Gen 1: 11-12, 21, 24-25). Micro-evolution would have started at the fall as the engineered systems (designed to be “good”/”very good” or 99% efficient) would then become much less efficient.

    Instant front-loaded creation of life (Gen 1:11), not step-wise, gradual evolution of plant life. Evolution would require plants to evolve their ability to produce seeds. Ditto for animals and man.

    Biological evolution would cause design errors when integrating structures and processes i.e. every entity would incur a design error or inefficiency. This is not what is found in Gen 1:31 vs Gen 1: 10, 12, 21, 25) where the integration of created entities is better (“very good”) than any individual created entity (“good”).

    See Breeden’s sabbath YEC argument and and some science problems of evolution in the comments here.

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  19. ChazIng says:

    Sorry ignorantianescia, didn’t read your question properly. When I state that unkleE is not open to proper exegesis, I don’t mean that YEC is the only option but that it is summarily ruled out by his prior commitment to elevating the present interpretation of the non-exegetical sciences above the author’s original intent. Proper exegesis would be much more concerned with the author’s intent. If this <a href="http://www.icr.org/article/838/"quote is correct, then the YECs are validated:

    Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience; . . . Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.

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  20. unkleE says:

    “your inability to differentiate between a person’s arguments and their views”
    I’m sorry Chaz, but I simply responded to what you said, and those were your references and the dating was something you mentioned several times. I must admit I am now at a loss to understand why you mentioned things you didn’t believe, and what you were actually wanting to say to me. I think this reinforces what I have been feeling that we started off at cross purposes and never really moved forwards. I’m sorry it happened that way.

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