Guest Column with Jim Bowler

February 14 / 130

Mungo Man is a physical reminder of the need for Indigenous recognition. Forty years on from the discovery of Mungo Man, what he represents is as pertinent now as ever.

26 February 1974 was a historic day, one destined to change my life and affect the lives of many others. It was the day I encountered the eroding remains of Mungo Man on the shores of a distant and then unnamed lake basin in western New South Wales.

Five years earlier, on those same dry lake shores, I had happened upon the cremated remains of a young woman, now known as Mungo Lady. Her discovery established that fully modern humans had been in Australia for longer than any European expected. 

But just as significant were the complex ceremonial features of the burial of Mungo Man, which presented one of the dramatic mysteries of ancient human cultural development. His emergence 40 years ago was a special moment, the opening of an entirely new page in Australian history. The circumstances of that encounter help clarify understanding of who we are; they establish an ancient link with this land and our shared past.

Identified by Dr AlanThorne, physical anthropologist with the Australian National University, as the remains of an adult male, this man had been buried with a level of ritual significance never before imagined, let alone encountered in any record of Australia’s ancient occupancy. This was of international significance.

The remains were removed and returned in Thorne’s care to the ANU, where they were carefully preserved for further detailed examination. The discovery was announced to the scientific world along with a dramatic full-grave image. Mungo Man – eventually firmly dated to 41,000 years – became famous almost overnight.

The results of his emergence and removal to Canberra were complex. Archaeological sciences celebrated these new contributions to Australia’s antiquity with special emphasis on their cultural significance, the ochre ritual. Physical anthropologists confirmed the earliest Australians were fully modern people.

Indigenous people, angered by the removal of human remains without their knowledge, protested. The Aboriginal response was loud and clear. “This is our culture; you are disturbing the spirits of our people. Stick to your own European history.”

The 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights Act, passed under the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, set new and overdue ground rules for the collection and management of cultural materials. Such work could not continue without approval of, and preferably collaborative engagement with, traditional owners. 

 A mutual accord was finally reached in 1989 whereby scientists and local Indigenous people agreed to share research agendas, ensuring priority employment for local Aboriginal people wherever possible. This was cemented by Thorne’s 1991 return of the Mungo Lady remains to traditional owners. Meanwhile the remains of Mungo Man lay in the laboratories of the ANU.

Traditional owners have never ceased to call for the return of all skeletal remains to their homelands, the shores of Lake Mungo and have joined with involved scientists to declare that 40 years is long enough for Mungo Man to stay in his cardboard box. It is time to come home, time to return to Lake Mungo’s shores.

A working party is striving to make his return possible. Mungo Man will find his resting place in the same secure storage shared by Mungo Lady since her return in 1991. This is a momentous occasion, a benchmark moment for traditional owners and a closing of the gap in my Mungo journey. It is an event of national significance. That homecoming opens new opportunities; new voices will be heard from ancient graves.

I remain ever conscious of Mutthi Mutthi elder Mary Pappin’s admonition: “You did not find Mungo Lady and Mungo Man – they found you!”

Wednesday’s anniversary commemorates a day that greeted the arrival of a new actor on the dramatic stage of expanding Aboriginal history. It was a day that changed the way we see ourselves as Australians.

Jim Bowler is an Australian geologist and a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne's School of Earth Sciences.

This piece is an edited extract of the original publication in The Guardian on Tuesday 25 February 2014:

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