ACT News

The time has come to lay Mungo Man to rest

Dr Jim Bowler's original picture of Mungo Man's bones.
Dr Jim Bowler's original picture of Mungo Man's bones. 

When Richard III's​ remains turned up under a car park after having been missing in action for 530 years the English responded with a right royal reburial​ in Leicester Cathedral that was broadcast around the world.

Australia, meanwhile, is content to let the potentially far more significant Mungo Man languish in a museum vault forever.

Professor Jim Bowler.
Professor Jim Bowler. Photo: Paul Harris

Today, February 26, 2016, marks the 42nd anniversary of the discovery of what is the oldest known ritual inhumation in Australia and one of the oldest ritual burials in the world. 

Dr Jim Bowler, the then Australian National University academic who discovered the bones when they were exposed by erosion at Lake Mungo near Mildura in 1974, said time was running out for Mungo Man to be reburied​ in accordance with the wishes of the traditional owners of the area but in a way that also marked his resting place and spoke of his significance.

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He said the initial "handover" of the red ochre coated skeleton, the oldest human remains ever discovered in Australia, was little more than an "outing" for them.

"The 40,000-year-old remains, along with more fragmentary remains of some 90 other individuals from the Willandra​ Lakes area, were transferred from the Australian National University to the interim storage of the National Museum of Australia," the 86-year-old scientist said.

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"After years of frustration, the traditional owners – the Mutthi Mutthi​, Ngiyampaa​ and Paakantji​ tribal groups – [have] reluctantly decreed that unless appropriate keeping arrangements were made by the end of 2017, they will dispose of all Willandra​ remains, with the possibility of complete reburial​.

"The prospect that the remains of Mungo Man may not be laid in a formal keeping place, an underground sacred crypt with above ground recognition of the dead, perhaps in memory of deceased Elders and of those who fought in defence of their lands, should stir the nation's conscience."

Dr Bowler, who said Britain's treatment of Richard III stood in stark contrast to Australia's indifference to the fate of Mungo Man, said his original discovery marked the convergence of a number of stories.

One was the narrative of a remarkable individual, believed to have been almost two metres tall, who was born and lived to be about 50 years of age about 42,000 years ago along the shores of a lake that drew now extinct mega fauna.

When he died he was placed on his back with his hands on his chest and a thick coating of red ochre was sprinkled on the body.

This is one of the earliest known examples of such a sophisticated and artistic burial practice.

Dr Bowler said it provided evidence of an evolved sense of spiritually directly connected to that of indigenous Australians today. It was also physical evidence of concern by the friends and relatives of a dead person with that individual's fate after death.

Because the ochre is believed to have come from hundreds of kilometres away, the burial also pointed to the existence of sophisticated trading networks.

"The ritual nature of his burial has changed our understanding of the time-depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture," he said. "The rare ceremonial ochre was the blood red symbol of life."

Dr Bowler said the continued absence of a keeping place for Mungo Man and his relatives was at odds with $100 million Villers-Brettenoux Education Centre then prime minister, Tony Abbott, unveiled last year.

"We are dealing not just with ancient bones but with the dignity and richness of our Aboriginal brothers and sisters," he said.

"We need to seize this opportunity to release Mungo Man. The return and celebration of Mungo Man will set us on a course to heal those bleeding wounds Stan Grant so eloquently defined."

For this to happen state and federal governments must commit to funding an appropriate "keeping place" in accordance with the wishes of the indigenous community he said.