The Mungo Man Debate
By Marco Stojanovik
When the skeletal remains of Australia’s oldest and most complete human were unearthed in 1974, it redefined Australia’s history of human occupation. Named Mungo Man after Mungo National Park in the Willandra Lakes region of south-west New South Wales, the dried-up lake basin where it was found, the skeleton is the most significant human remains to be discovered outside of Africa. Dating back at least 42,000 years, Mungo Man was subject to complex funerary rites involving ochre and fire, indicating a cultural and spiritual sophistication not previously thought possible so far back in human history.
The ancient remains were hailed as a major discovery, but his removal from his burial site to be stored and studied at a university in Canberra caused the traditional owners great pain and anger. A long campaign ensued until finally, 43 years later in November 2017, Mungo Man was granted a return to his original resting place and honoured with a ceremony.
But even with the repatriation, a debate continues amongst the local Paakantyi, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa peoples about what to do with the remains of their ancestors. Should the bones be reburied so that the spirit can rest in country or kept in an Indigenous run keeping place where they can be securely cared for and made available for important future research?
Discovering Mungo Man
The skeletal remains of Mungo Man were first discovered by archaeologist Jim Bowler in 1974 while researching the semi-arid landscapes of south-west New South Wales. Late one afternoon, venturing out after some heavy rain into the stunning landscape of Lake Mungo, which dried up about 15,000 years ago, Bowler spotted a gleaming white object poking out of the sand. Upon closer inspection, he realised it was a human skull, part of an entire skeleton.
Six years earlier, just 450 metres from this site, he had unearthed a female skeleton, which turned out to be amongst the oldest ancestral remains of modern humans (homo sapiens) in the world outside Africa. Further investigations had revealed that ‘Mungo Lady’ – as she is now called – was a young woman. She had been ritually buried: cremated, then crushed, burned again, and buried in the lunette.
Now, suspecting the new skeletal discovery could be as equally ancient, Bowler took the carefully excavated remains of Mungo Man 800km away to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra to be studied. Eventually, scientists would date both skeletons as being around 40, 000 to 42, 000 years old. Prior to the discovery, scientists believed that Aboriginal people had been in Australia between 15 and 20 thousand years.
Mungo Lady and Mungo Man revealed a much more ancient history. For many Aboriginal people, this was welcome confirmation of what they had long known: their people have effectively been in this country forever.
Investigations revealed that Mungo Man was 1.70 meter (5ft 6 inches) tall and around 50 years old when he died. Severe arthritis in his right elbow pointed to a life of spear throwing as a hunter gatherer, while the worn condition of his teeth indicated a diverse diet. Two of his canine teeth, in the lower jaw, had also been deliberately extracted during adolescence, suggesting initiation rites.
Like Mungo Lady, he had been buried in a complex funeral rite, placed on his back, with hands crossed in his lap and his body decorated in red ochre likely sourced about 200km from the burial site. The remains of a circular fireplace were also found nearby.
The revenant treatment of the body revealed a concern for the afterlife. It indicated rich spirituality, complex cultural practices, and sophisticated abstract thought, redefining the scientific understanding of early Australians. Given that ochre is not found naturally in the Willandra Lakes area, the discovery also provided evidence of some form of ancient trade occurring.
Bringing Mungo Man Home
The removal of Mungo Man immediately spurred anger from Aboriginal communities: the remains had been taken to ANU in Canberra for further study without first consulting and gaining permission from the traditional tribes of Lake Mungo – Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji and Ngyiampaa. Tensions mounted between the Australian government scientists and Aboriginal community lasting throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the traditional owners issuing a moratorium on the removal of skeletal remains out of western NSW.
For the scientists, the discovery was seen as an archaeological triumph, universally valuable for science and national identity. They saw it as imperative that the skeleton be kept safe, as future developments in DNA research and improved X-ray tests might one day reveal new insights about the diet, life expectancy, health, and cultural practices of early humans, or about mankind’s origins.
For the traditional owners, on the other hand, the removal was an emotional, often traumatic, spiritual loss. They identify the human remains as being theirs, claiming an unbroken connection with them. This strong connection to the past is quite unique, with no such comparison recorded in the Middle East, Europe, or even in North America with the native Americans.
The groups sought to protect their cultural heritage through the reparation of ancestral remains. They appealed for the return of human remains as a form of apology for Australia’s tragic colonial history. For them, this was also a matter of respect for their ancestors. Like many indigenous groups, the local tribes believe that a person’s spirit will be subject to wandering the earth endlessly if his remains are not buried in Country.
In 1989, the parties agreed to a conference at Lake Mungo, in which a compromise was met, in which both would respect the others interests in a collaborative approach. As a result, further human skeletal remains have remained in situ, and in 1992 ANU returned Mungo Lady to Lake Mungo and the traditional owners. Relations further improved from here as young Aboriginal people trained as rangers, archaeologists, and heritage officials, and in 2007 the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi gained joint management of the parks.
The process of returning Aboriginal remains accelerated in 2002 after the Australian government recommended that repatriations be unconditional. Although this directive had no legal force behind it, Australian institutions responded with increased energy. A network of heritage officers began systematically connecting with Aboriginal communities all over Australia to empty museum collections
Bureaucratic hurdles within ANU and government, however, meant Mungo remained in Canberra until only recently. Finally, in 2015, the university announced that Mungo Man would be returned to the traditional owners, with the vice chancellor Ian Young formally apologising for causing “ongoing grief to your communities”.
Until November 2017, Mungo Man was kept in the National Museum of Australia’s human remains storage facility on Canberra’s outskirt. Then, fitted in a hand-carved casket, he was transported in a black hearse across the Western NSW outback towards Lake Mungo, followed by a convoy of Aboriginal elders and activists.
Along the way, the repatriation event was marked by a traditional purification ceremony led by an Aboriginal elder that involved cleansing the coffin with smoking eucalyptus leaves. At Lake Mungo his coffin was laid out and covered with leaves, finally returned to his descendants.