Footprints in Time

Published 12 September 2006

The only fossilised human footprints ever found in Australia, dating back to about 20,000 BC, will be the focus of a public lecture at Southern Cross University this Friday (September 15).

The footprints were discovered in Mungo National Park in western NSW three years ago and are the largest collection of their kind in the world.

They were left by children, adolescents and adults at the height of the last ice age as they ran and walked across a moist clay area near the Willandra Lakes.

One set of footprints belong to a very tall, athletic man sprinting at the astonishing speed of about 37kmh, possibly hunting.

The first footprint was spotted by Mary Pappin Junior, of the local Mutthi Mutthi people and about 700 more have since been uncovered by a team led by Professor Steve Webb, Professor of Australian Studies at Bond University.

The footprints were laid at differing times and as the area is still three-quarters buried, thousands more are expected to be unearthed, Professor Webb said.

Professor Webb will deliver a talk and slide presentation about the find at Southern Cross University’s Whitebrook Theatre on Friday between 12 noon at 1.30pm. The presentation is being sponsored by Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples and the School of Law and Justice.

Professor Webb said the find provided a unique glimpse into the lives of those who lived in the arid inland long ago.

“It brings these people to life in a way no other archaeological evidence can. You can see how the mud squelched between their toes,” he said.

The traditional custodians of the area, members of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area Three Traditional Tribal Groups Elders Corporation, said they were very excited by the find.

Ms Pappin said walking alongside the footprints was like ‘walking with a family group today. They’re the same people’.

She believed the prints had been revealed from under the sand dunes ‘to let the rest of the world know how clever our people really were, living and surviving in their environment’.

Roy Kennedy, a Ngiyampaa Elder, said the area had been a special meeting place for his tribe since the Dreamtime.

“It was an oasis in the desert,” he said.

About 20,000 years ago the now dry lakes would have contained fish, mussels and crayfish, Professor Webb said.

His team estimated the height of the people from their foot size and their speed from the distance between paces.

Professor Webb has also recently excavated two sets of 17,000-year-old skeletal remains found about six kilometres away.

“They were athletic and very strong and fit. I assume some of the men on this site were very similar,” he said.

Media contact: Zoe Satherley Southern Cross University media officer, 6620 3144, 0439 132 095.