This unfolding story, while filled with extraordinary Aboriginal cultural discoveries, is an even larger tale of epic proportions… a narrative of historic global impact that contains groundbreaking science, mystery, politics and, most importantly, deep ancestral wisdom. Beyond science, Aboriginal people have an innate spiritual ‘connection to country’ and the cosmos. We have much to learn from them. Yet with all of this, the core of the story – the 42,000 year oldest human remains on the continent of Australia, with messages yet to be heard, were about to be buried anonymously for eternity by the New South Wales government.
However, after 43 years, this past July a shortnotice was given for a ten-day comment period. An historic response ensued from the Barkindji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyimpaa (considered the Traditional Custodians), along with a variety of scientists, concerned citizens from around the world, including five Native American Chiefs, who all made their individual comments. As a result, these ‘cultural deposits’, as they were so irreverently called by the government, were given a temporary stay, pending further dialogue with the tribes.
Why does this story hold such intrigue? Let us take you on a journey that begins in 1968 when a climate-change geologist named Jim Bowler inadvertently unveiled the longest continuing civilization on the planet. In his dusty boots and famous brimmed Akubra hat, he was exploring the harsh, semi-desert landscape of the Australian Willandra Lakes, dried-up for over 14,000 years. No Aboriginal communities were living there. It was quite barren save for a large sheep station. Knowing that the Murray Basin may very well hold extraordinary secrets of climate change from its natural history over millions of years, he began mapping evidence of former lake shorelines on these ancient basins.
He followed them looking for clues to how the climate had changed over deep time. Unexpectedly, he found stones and fresh water shells that didn’t belong there, as well as exposed traces of stone tools and fireplaces. Recognizing he had uncovered remnants of ancient culture where there wasn’t supposed to be one, he pursued the clues and in 1968 he discovered some fragments of bone protruding from the eroded sand lunette. They were later determined to be skull fragments of a 18-20 year-old woman cremated and ritually buried. Dated 42,000 years to the Pleistocene epoch, she was the oldest Homo sapien (modern human) remains found on the Australian continent.
Four years later, on the shoreline of the same lake, in his same dusty boots and brimmed hat, still looking for climate change signs, Jim noticed yet another protrusion. Scraping the sand away, it was clear to him that this was the tip of a human cranium with a crust of reddish cement. Leaving it undisturbed he returned with his colleague Alan Thorne.
Jim notes,“In carefully scraping away the sand, we realized that the body had been covered in its upper section by an anointing of ochre, red pellets, red paint from the cranium down to the groin. With no previous evidence of this kind of burial, the door opened to a whole new perception of ritual anointing, a spiritual practice which Aboriginal people continue to this day. Mungo Man, in that burial context, was not only associated with the land and the people of the land, he was connected to the cosmos.”
The remains were taken in a vinyl suitcase – the only suitable container they had with them at the time, and transported by vehicle back to the university in Canberra for further scientific analysis. Herein lies the conundrum: If they had not been removed, they would have disappeared completely. Unfortunately, up until this point of his life, Jim had never met an Aboriginal person, and according to the scientific thinking of the day, he was performing the expected due diligence. Aboriginal people on the other hand, remembered past abuses of Aboriginal skeletons and they protested, ‘Here we go again. Those mad scientists are removing human remains without our permission.’ It wasn’t until later on he and his colleagues began to recognize the psychological and cultural pain of their actions at the time.
In the interim, the magnitude of the findings at the Willandra Lakes Region gave the area the Outstanding Universal Value credentials necessary to be designated in 1981 as a UNESCO Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area and Mungo National Park. While there are still changes for the better that need to be made, the site has afforded employment for many Aboriginal men and women who work as managers and park rangers.
Mungo Lady was brought back ‘on Country’ (meaning her original home) in 1992. In 2017 Mungo Man was returned with the honor not previously afforded him. He was spectacularly celebrated – not only by the Aboriginal people but by Australians at large. Instead of a vinyl suitcase, this time his remains were transported with great honor in a black funeral limousine with number plate ‘Mungo 1’. The casket was made from an Australian ancient Red Gum Tree (eucalyptus camaldulenus) that would have grown in and around his original site, and was carbon-dated 10,000 years (approx).
The remains of both are back ‘on country’… and there they sit. They have not been able to complete their journey to a final resting place due to complex circumstances. Over the years, a mixture of government interference and intertribal differences kept resolution at a distance. Finally, in July of this year, there was an attempt by the NSW government at a proposed plan to anonymously rebury Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, without markers or memorials! A fundamental mistake for many obvious reasons, but in particular, without a memorial, there is great risk of erasing the historic cultural importance and rights of future generations.
And a memorial or “Keeping Place” is exactly what many of the Traditional Owners wanted. Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly has a welldocumented record spanning the last 30-40 years of the aspirations of the tribal Elders for a secure and sacred reburial of the remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man — underground with a memorial and Cultural Center. It could become a unifying place for all Aboriginal people to claim their rightful ancient heritage, with future generations benefiting first-hand from this iconic history.
Their wish must be honored as outlined by Senior Mutthi Mutthi Elder Mary Pappin with her explicit opposition to anonymous burial, filmed in May 2021 https://drive.google.com/file/d/1FL5gvec23kJGBmFKWDUaa9YYeJHm7nVV/view?usp=sharing
Jim Bowler, who has dedicated his life to research and to documenting the history of Australia, dating back to Ice Ages, has this to say: “I would like to acknowledge that Indigenous issues must primarily be resolved by Indigenous Peoples. However, because this is a World Heritage site, the wider participation of the community is necessary in the final decisionmaking, as other cultural groups have an interest and a responsible voice that has been previously denied. We are losing the soul of what the World Heritage is about.”
Aboriginal peoples walk across that landscape in awe of the spirits present in the hills and waterholes. They hear the echoes of their ancestors and listen very carefully for messages from them. Elder Mary Pappin has this to say to Bowler:
“You didn’t find Mungo Lady and Mungo Man – they found you…because they had a story to tell even after 45,000 years. They wanted to let white Australia know that the Aboriginal people had been here for a long time and they are still here.”
Mungo is a meeting place of international significance with a message for the world. These ancestral human beings are national and universal treasures whose importance cannot be underestimated. The discoveries of the oldest known sophisticated ceremonial burials, command the respect long overdue to the Aboriginal cultures. They have changed our understanding of human history for all Aboriginal peoples – and the world at large, as well as provide keys to understanding the story of human migration and human evolution.
Although not nearly as old, ancient burial sites are resurfacing around the globe… all with stories to tell… The silencing of the true cultural histories must end. How we treat these ancestors reflects on our respect for ancient cultures.
As modern society changes the planet and its climate in disastrous ways, we must pause to listen to the Indigenous peoples of the world who have a long relationship with and profound understanding of nature, the environment and the cosmos. Their knowledge has the potential to bring a deeper awareness to the world.
The story is still emerging. The 10-day comment period was a only temporary win for Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, as their final fate has not been determined. There will be an upcoming 20- day comment period. For a unifying outcome, we invite collective participation from the local Aboriginal people, all Australians, as well as the International community.
Dadirri is an Aboriginal word for deep awareness and listening. Mungo Lady and Mungo Man carry important messages. ARE WE LISTENING? We are here because of the people who preceded us – our ancestors. We walk in their footsteps and should carry their honor with us. If you listen quietly to deep time, you just may hear our future answers.
You can reach us at: Globalfriendsofmungo.com