Half a century ago, it might have seemed relatively straightforward to take the ancient remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man from the dry bed of Willandra Lakes in New South Wales.
No one objected when the scientists brought the bones to the Australian National University where research on them would reveal that modern indigenous people had inhabited this part of Australia permanently for at least 42,000 years.
But leaving them to rest in the lake bed today – whether secretly in anonymous graves or with a ceremony in a monumental preservation site – is proving far more upsetting to the scientist who took them and, more importantly, , for their living Indigenous ancestors.
The implications of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man – discovered in 1968 and 1974 respectively by geologist Jim Bowler – were profound.
The leftovers are at least 42,000 years, and are the most important human remains found outside of Africa.
Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were subjected to elaborate funeral rites involving ocher and fire, indicating their cultural and spiritual sophistication.
They are also uniquely valuable for their continued potential to shed light on human evolution and the adaptation of Indigenous people to climate and geological changes, as the Willandra Lakes have evolved from wetlands into what is in part compared to a arid lunar landscape.
But for their ancestors there are greater imperatives – their spirits will not rest until they are reburied, somehow, in the land.
Soon, if the NSW government succeeds, the Mungos and 106 other indigenous peoples who have also been taken from the region will be re-buried in 26 unmarked sites within the Willandra World Heritage Site. They will return to the lake bed without public ceremony or landmarks.
The plan for a simple reburial was accepted by the state government when approved in November 2018 by a local indigenous advisory group comprising three people with recognized associations with the inhabitants of the area – the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa and Barkindji (the latter being recognized as holders of native titles 80% of the area concerned).
But there are suggestions that the advisory group split up, failed to consult with their wider communities, and defy the wishes of some deceased elders that the remains be kept in a special custody or resting place. Some Indigenous stakeholders are divided on the nature of the conservation site, particularly on whether it should include a monumental element.
Pain and anguish
Michael Young, a man from Barkindji, was critical with Bowler at the return of Mungo Man and the others from Canberra to the traditional owners of the Willandra Lakes region in 2017. He says his loved ones, living and dead, have long been overwhelmed by the remains.
“There has always been so much pain and anguish associated with this. At the mention of Mungo Man and Lady… the aunts would put their heads in their hands, shake their heads and cry, ”he says.
He says there had been discussions for decades about a place of conservation, but it was no longer relevant and “they just want to bury them.”
“And yet, 80% of the land they want to re-bury is in fact in the [Barkindji] native title determination area. And yet the Barkindji community had no say, ”Young says.
“We don’t want a reburial. We do not want the state destruction of ancestral remains.
“We want an underground vault for the remains so that they are back in the land and in the earth – all of this could be implemented at minimal cost.”
Young says the existing building should be reused for the vault. A new building cannot be built on the World Heritage site.
He says a place of conservation should be managed by and for indigenous peoples and also be a place where indigenous archaeologists and other scientists pursue limited forms of research.
“But we don’t want big monuments. You can’t put monuments there.
“The type of monuments that some were talking about was ridiculous. It was very colonial… just the idea of a monument goes against our culture.
The concept of an underground conservation area and monument was first brought up in the 1980s. An elaborate architectural design was even commissioned. But momentum weakened amid persistent delays in repatriation and an ultimate reluctance by the state government to fund the project.
Mungo Lady was returned in 1992 and has been safely kept in the Visitor Center in Mungo National Park. Mungo Man has stayed in the same location since his return in 2017.
Jewel of human history
NSW’s reburial plan was revealed this month when the federal Department of the Environment called on the public for comment. This process was triggered because burials are proposed in a World Heritage area, with status coming in 1981 due to the global significance of Mungo Man and Lady.
Bowler, 91, says Mungo Man and Lady’s remains are a “gem” in “Australian and global human history spanning over 40,000 years of continuous indigenous civilization” and which “would evaporate if we simply took them out. and burials “.
He says that Willandra’s World Heritage listing depended on the global significance of the remains and that status would be diminished by reburial.
The remains represent the existence and recognition of “modern human consciousness in a landscape reminiscent of the days of Gondwana a million years ago,” says the geologist. And they should be “respectfully buried and remembered.”
“This is the site from which we can establish the long-awaited principle of making Australia proud, of giving us an iconic landscape where the land and people come together to provide Australia with this broader concept of nature and of culture, ”Bowler said.
Patsy Winch, chair of the Indigenous Advisory Group, said recently that Bowler should “stop interfering, he had his time.”
“When Mungo Man was sitting on a shelf in Canberra, no one was worried about him at the time,” she told The Australian.
But Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly, a member of the advisory group, supports Bowler’s position on preservation, a place of preservation and a memorial.
“I have consulted the minutes of previous meetings [of elders] … And going back to the 1980s, over and over again, aunts would say ‘keep a place – there will be a place for them,’ ”says Kelly.
He says the three tribes in the advisory group never had the resources to consult with their own communities. “So we cannot be defined as a leading Aboriginal organization elected by the community.
“Yes, we are people from the three tribes but we never had the means to meet this criterion [to consult more widely]. There has been no consultation with members of the traditional owner community outside the AGA [Aboriginal advisory group]. “
Mary Pappin, an elder of Mutthi Mutthi, said the Mungos “cannot return to the ground until we have obtained our place of custody”.
“The place of custody was where they had to go – back in the ground, [but] behind the place of custody, in this landscape, ”she said. “We didn’t want them locked up and buried so they could never be seen again. “
She wants them in a place “where they can be safe and we can take care of them.” “But we also knew we would need them [again] one day to explain to the rest of the world… how long they had been there.
It is unreasonable – and arguably a colonial legacy – for governments to expect that sometimes disparate indigenous stakeholders can quickly speak with one voice on complex issues related to the repatriation of ancestral remains. Tens of thousands of these remains were stolen from traditional burial sites from the early 18th century.
The starting point recognized by the government for the homecoming is that, to the extent possible, Indigenous communities determine, to the extent possible, what happens to the remains.
When multiple non-Indigenous governance structures – local councils and state and federal governments, for example – and legal frameworks such as Indigenous title inevitably become part of the process, progress almost invariably becomes strained and sometimes resentful. Resolution takes time – sometimes decades.
But time is running out for those who want to stop the reburial of Mungo’s remains; the deadline for public comments has passed and a federal decision is expected in early August.
Bowler, who may not have foreseen all of this when he stumbled upon the bones sticking out of the sand of the old lake all these years ago, concedes the tense nature of what is going on.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey, meanwhile, publicly supported Bowler.
“When we look at our history, there are certain people, certain events, certain landscapes that give us a sense of wonder and a sense of belonging to this land. And whether it’s the short stories of Henry Lawson or the poems of Banjo Paterson or the painters of Heidelberg, there are certain events that make us feel like we belong and Jim Bowler and Lake Mungo have revolutionized our understanding of a vital part of… the human history of our homeland. “
But Bowler doesn’t seem optimistic.
“I think we are fighting an uphill battle,” he said. “Whatever the outcome, I’ll live with it. But I reiterate my belief that the richness and global significance of this place will evaporate if we simply remove all the remains and bury them. “