• A footprint made 20,000 years ago, discovered 13 years ago, is being protected at Mungo National Park. (Matthew Cupper/University of Melbourne)
What happened to the 20,000-year-old footprints revealing unique insight into Indigenous culture when they were uncovered over a decade ago?
By
Andrea Booth

Source:
NITV News
3 Feb 2016 - 1:24 PM  UPDATED 16 Feb 2016 - 2:36 PM

Sand, shade cloth and laser technology are protecting 20,000-year-old footprints that provide a remarkable look into the way Aboriginal people lived in western New South Wales.

Children, adolescents and adults - both male and female - all hunted together through Willandra Lakes region, and did so at great speeds, archaelogists determined from the largest known collection of footprints from the Pleistocene period (from about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago).

They were partly discovered in 2003 by Mary Pappin Jrand and fully discovered, excavated, analysed and reburied three years later by archaeologists Matthew Cupper from the University of Melbourne, Steve Webb from Bond University, and Richard Robbins from the University of New England.

Dan Rosendahl, Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area executive officer, told NITV News the footprints are currently being conserved under sand and shade cloth, which stabilises against sand shifts and armors from wind erosion, at a secret location at Mungo National Park.

"Once the footprint is exposed it essentially crumbles and blows away. We get really strong winds in Mungo, up to one hundred kilometers per hour," Mr Rosendahl said. 

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Since 2006, when the full set of tracks were found, analysed and reburied, the national park in collaboration with various universities have been using GPS to locate their exact position and laser scanning for potential weathering and erosion.

"A selection of footprints are opened and assessed for damage, to ask 'is this technique working?'"

And it's working, he says, which means the team are monitoring the site less frequently thereby reducing exposure to better protect them.

Footprints can provide a deeper insight into the way people lived than artefacts, Melbourne University's Matthew Cupper told NITV News.

"Stone tools and shells don't tell us much about the people who have eaten the shells," he says.

"But footprints are a direct correlation to the people."

The feet ranged between 27-30 centimeters long, indicating "tall-to-very-tall people", and ran at between 12 and 20 kilometres per hour.

"Stone tools and shells don't tell us much about the people who have eaten the shells."

Mr Cupper says the discovery is "unusual" given that rain and wind usually flush footprints away.

"So many people have walked across the Willandra Lakes region, and it was only these that have been preserved."

He explains how natural elements worked together to enable thousands of years of preservation.

"The sediment where the tracks were made was soft enough to give foot impressions," Cupper says.

The minerals in the sediment enabled the sediment to cement the imprints.

A sand dune encased the sediment acting like a protective seal.

A replica footprint track is located at Mungo National Park for public viewing.