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Willandra Lakes Region, Arumpo Mungo National Park Rd, Robinvale, NSW, Australia

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List World Heritage List
Class Natural
Legal Status Declared property (30/10/1981)
Place ID 105107
Place File No 1/05/360/0002
Statement of Significance
The Willandra Lakes Region covers 240 000 hectares of a semi-arid landscape mosaic comprising dried saline lake bed plains vegetated with saltbush communities, fringing sand dunes and woodlands with grassy understoreys in the Murray Basin area in far south-western New South Wales.
The region was inscribed on the World Heritage List for both outstanding cultural and natural universal values:
  • as an outstanding example representing the major stages in the earth's evolutionary history; and
  • as an outstanding example representing significant ongoing geological processes.
  • bearing an exceptional testimony to a past civilisation.
The region contains a system of Pleistocene lakes, formed over the last two million years. Most are fringed on the eastern shore by a dune or lunette formed by the prevailing winds.
Today, the lake beds are flat plains vegetated by salt tolerant low bushes and grasses. About 10 per cent of the World Heritage area is gazetted as the Mungo National Park, which covers about two-thirds of Lake Mungo and includes the spectacular parts of the Walls of China lunette. The remaining area comprises pastoral leasehold properties.
There are five large, interconnected, dry lake basins and fourteen smaller basins varying from 600 to 35 000 hectares in area. The original source for the lakes was a creek flowing from the Eastern Highlands to the Murray River. When the Willandra Billabong Creek ceased to replenish the lakes, they dried in series from south to north over a period of several thousand years, each becoming progressively more saline.
The ancient shorelines are stratified into three major layers of sediments that were deposited at different stages in the lakes' history.
The earliest sediments are more than 50 000 years old and are orange-red in colour. Above are clays, clean quartz sand and soil that were deposited along the lakes' edges when the lakes were full of deep, relatively fresh water, between 50 000 and 19 000 years ago. The top layer is composed largely of wind-blown clay particles heaped up on the lunettes during periods of fluctuating water levels, before the lakes finally dried up.
Aborigines lived on the shores of the Willandra Lakes from 50 000 to 40 000 years and possibly up to 60 000 years ago. Excavations in 1968 uncovered a cremated female in the dunes of Lake Mungo. At 26 000 years old, this is believed to be the oldest cremation site in the world. In 1974, the ochred burial of a male Aborigine was found nearby.
The use of ochres for burial in Australia 30 000 years ago parallels their use in France at the same time. Radiocarbon dating established that these materials were some of the earliest evidence of modern humans in the world.
During the last Ice Age, when the lakes were full, the Mungo people camped along the lake shore taking advantage of a wide range of food, including freshwater mussels and yabbies, golden perch and Murray cod, large emus and a variety of marsupials, which probably included the now extinct super roos. They also exploited plant resources, particularly when the lakes began to dry and food was less abundant.
The human history of the region is not restricted just to an ancient episode. Evidence so far points to an extraordinary continuity of occupation over long periods of time. In the top layers of sediments there is abundant evidence of occupation over the last 10 000 years.
The vegetation in the region, sparse though it is, is typical of the semi-arid zone. It plays an important role in stabilising the landscape and hence maintaining its sediment strata and many species of native fauna.
On the dunes are found the small scrubby multi-stemmed mallee eucalypts with an understorey of herbs and grasses. Rose wood-belah woodland is common on the sand plains. In the lake beds, several species of salt bushes are able to thrive in the saline conditions.
The remains of a large number of animals have been found in Willandra. More than 55 species have been identified, 40 of which are no longer found in the region, and 11 are totally extinct.
Twenty-two species of mammals are currently recorded at Willandra, of which bats are the most diverse group. There are some 40 species of reptiles and amphibians.
The bird life of the Willandra region is similar to that in many other semi-arid areas of Australia. Parrots, cockatoos and finches are the most conspicuous of the 137 recorded species.
Official Values
Criterion (III) Unique cultural tradition
The Willandra Lakes Region demonstrates an exceptional sequence of Aboriginal cultural occupation extending over tens of thousands of years, including an outstanding record of human responses to major changes over time in climate and environments (e.g. due to increasing aridity). The World Heritage values include:
landforms and locations which greatly extend our understanding of Australia's environmental and Aboriginal cultural history, including:
  • exposures of sedimentary sequences which reveal Pleistocene sedimentary profiles and associated archaeological and palaeontological materials;
  • extensive intact lakeshore landforms that may contain extensive archaeological and palaeontological materials; and
  • the remains of hearths, including those with considerable antiquity, which have provided an ideal source for palaeomagnetic measurements;
  • archaeological sites which occur within stratified sedimentary sequences and provide evidence for the antiquity and continuing presence of human occupation;
  • archaeological sites which contain evidence of utilisation of lacustrine resources during lake full phases, and rangeland resources during arid phases;
  • archaeological sites which demonstrate continuity of human occupation for the region through fluctuations in lake levels drying of the system about 15,000 years ago through the Holocene period and up to historic times;
  • archaeological sites which provide outstanding examples of hunting and gathering, a way of life that has dominated the Australian continent up to modern times, including:
  • evidence of human occupation of, and interaction with, the landscape of lakes, lunettes and sand dunes over time in the form of campsites, middens, fireplaces, quarries, knapping floors and burials; and
  • campsites and fireplaces that reflect people's hunting, gathering and fishing diet;
  • burial sites which are of global significance for the antiquity of burial practices represented and also for the information they provide on the development of human societies, including Pleistocene and Holocene burial sites; and
  • burial sites with associated mortuary goods and evidence of ritual burials which demonstrate the antiquity of particular burial practices and the development of religious beliefs and systems over time.
Criterion (VIII) Outstanding examples of stages of earth's history
The Willandra Lakes Region represents major stages of the earth's geological history, particularly associated with the response to major glacial-interglacial fluctuations. The World Heritage values include:
non-glaciated, low-latitude lacustrine landscape lake basins which include:
  • inter-lake areas between major lake basins;
  • connecting channels adjacent to the lake system;
  • connecting dunefields adjacent to the lake system;
  • unusually large clay dunes; and
  • complex downstream variability in the character of the lacustrine system;
  • fossil dunes and lake sediments including those which show:
  • evidence of Pleistocene climatic changes and landscape history for the geomorphological record spanning well over 100,000 years;
  • detailed stratigraphic, geochemical and pedological evidence for climatic and related environmental changes;
  • how non-glaciated inland regions were affected by the major climatic fluctuations associated with oscillations in ice sheets;
  • the influence of the westerly winds that prevailed throughout the period of dune formation, a period extending from at least 100,000 years to about 15,000 years ago; and
  • evidence of giant extinct marsupial species.
  • extensive flat plains of lake floors and sedimentary carbonates which show:
  • evidence of past salinity fluctuations and the stability of the landscape in this region; and
  • evidence of the area's response to major climate change.
  • stunted blue bush (Maireana sedifolia, M. pyramidata) and saltbush (Atriplex stipulata) on the lake floor showing evidence of final saline phases of lakes.
The Willandra Lakes Region occupies some 3,600 square kilometre of semiarid rangelands, and consists of a system of now dry lakes situated in the Murray Basin in south western New South Wales. When last full, over 15,000 years ago, the lakes had a surface area of over 1,000 kilometre squared, represented an important source of water and supported food resources for early man.

At present the place consists of six large and many smaller vegetated dry lake basins in a dunefield, stabilised by mallee vegetation. Mallee and spinifex are the dominant vegetation communities supported within the area. The land is level at about 70m above sea level (ASL) and generally featureless. Slight depressions along the riverine plains of Willandra Creek and anabranches on the south-west corner of the Cobar Peneplain support some trees. The lake basins themselves consist of large, shallow, subelliptical depressions with their long axes oriented in a north/west to south/east direction. All have an irregular western margin often marked by a steep escarpment and a smooth crescentic eastern shoreline marked by a transverse dune or lunette. The lake beds at the downstream end of the system commonly show the development of smaller basins within larger basins, forming lake floor terraces. This would have occurred late in the history of the lakes.

The fauna of the region is typical of semiarid country, and includes twenty two mammal species (five introduced).

The Willandra region has become the most important site in Australia for multidisciplinary Quaternary studies.

1) Quaternary environments: important for understanding how nonglaciated regions were effected by major climatic fluctuations due to the waxing and waning of the northern hemisphere ice sheets. The geologic fork in the Willandra Lakes is of value to the reconstruction of the nature and causes of climatic fluctuations of the Pleistocene age and in elucidating the environments produced by these fluctuations.

2) Early man sites: this area has become one of the prime sites for archaeological work in Australia dealing with Pleistocene populations. The geological work done in close association with archaeological work has proved invaluable in helping to assess evidence obtained and in elucidating environments where populations existed.

3) Geological yardstick: this area is very important as a modern or near modern deposition and soil formation where much is known of the climate and physiography of the region, the origin of the sediments and the time and longevity of their deposition. It allows detailed sedimentalogical studies to be used as a geological yardstick comparison with ancient sediments to understand their depositional environments and processes.
History Not Available
Condition and Integrity Not Available
About 240,000ha, 35km north east of Robinvale, located in the Murray Darling Basin in south western New South Wales, comprising the revised boundary as endorsed by the World Heritage Committee in 1995. The revised boundary is a reduced area of that originally inscribed into the World Heritage List in 1981.
Bowler, M. J. and Thorne, A.G. (1976)  'Human remains from Lake Mungo: Discovery and excavation of Lake Mungo III' in The Origin of the Australians, eds R. L. Kirk and A. G. Thorne Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.
Flood, J. M. A. (1983) Archaeology of the Dreamtime, Collins.
Fox, A.. (1992)  Mungo National Park, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Broken Hill.
Mulvaney, D. J. (1975)  The Prehistory of Australia, Penguin.
White, J. P.and O'Connell, J. F. (1982)  A Prehistory of Australia, New Guinea and Sahul, Academic Press.

Report Produced  Sun Apr 20 01:11:03 2014