42,000-year-old Mungo Man Skeleton has been Found in Australia
First, a skull, then a torso and eventually an entire skeleton emerged from the sands of south-west New South Wales. When the bones of Australia’s oldest and most complete people were found in the 1970s, history was re-established.
Dubbed Mungo Man after the dried-up lake basin where he was found, the skeleton dates back about 42,000 years. But his removal from his burial site to a Canberra university 43 years ago caused his traditional owners great angst.
He’s now been returned to his country, but there’s a fresh dilemma to be resolved: Should Mungo Man be interred forever or should his remains still be accessible to science?
It’s a fraught question which goes to the heart of who owns the rights to access Mungo Man’s history, traditional owners of the Willandra Lakes World heritage region — the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa, and Paakantyi/Barkandji peoples — will meet to begin discussions on his ultimate resting place.
“My preferred option is to bury him and put a nice plaque on him, rather than have him lying in a box waiting for someone to come and poke him again,” Ngyiampaa elder Roy Kennedy said, adding researchers “have had him long enough”.
But many scientists fear burying Mungo Man will close off any chance of future research. Future techniques may become available that will tell us so much more about the story of Mungo Man,” said Dr. Jim Bowler, the geologist who found the skeleton.
“The prospect of possible future access must be resolved.”
Finding Mungo Man
Dr. Bowler stumbled across Mungo Man in 1974 while researching the semi-arid landscapes of south-west New South Wales. The wide scrubby basins fringed by sand dunes were once an ancient series of lakes, brimming with freshwater and teeming with life.
Among them was Lake Mungo, which dried up about 15,000 years ago, leaving behind a stunning landscape. Dr. Bowler had ventured out after a rainstorm when he spotted a white object poking out of the sand, glinting in the afternoon sun. It was a skull.
He alerted archaeologists at the Australian National University and the team rushed to the scene, carefully excavating Mungo Man and taking him 800 kilometers away to Canberra. Mutthi Mutthi elder Mary Pappin’s view is that it was Mungo Man who found Dr. Bowler, not the other way around. Mungo Man was very clever because he revealed himself to a man of science,” she said.
“He thought he [Dr. Bowler] would be the ideal person to make white Australia understand just how long us Aboriginal people had been here.”
During Mungo Man’s excavation in 1974, Dr. Bowler dated the earth in which he was buried and estimated his age at 30,000 years or older. Later, scientists would redate the bones at 42–44,000 years. For many Aboriginal people, this was a welcome confirmation of what they had long been saying.
“We believe he came because he wanted to tell the rest of Australia as well as the world just how long us Aboriginal people have been walking on this landscape,” Ms Pappin said.
It wasn’t just the skeleton’s antiquity that astonished scientists. It was the complexity of his burial. Mungo Man had been carefully laid out, his hands placed in his lap, and his body covered in red ochre. The substance was transported from hundreds of kilometers away.
“To find on the shores of Lake Mungo the extraordinary ritual of ochre and fire was a moment of sheer wonder,” said Dr Bowler, now aged 88.
“We were blown away by it.”
Further research found Mungo Man’s lower teeth had been deliberately extracted during adolescence, suggesting initiation rites. Arthritis in his right elbow pointed to a life of spear throwing. Scientists say Mungo Man showed these ancient people had culture, complex language, complex tools, and ceremonies. Paakantyi man Michael Young said this cultural sophistication changed all prior perceptions of Aboriginal people.
“That idea that Aboriginal people were nomadic and primitive people have been blown away,” he said. As a result of the unique cultural and environmental features uncovered in the Willandra Lakes, the region was listed on the world heritage register in 1981.