Returning Mungo Man no easy task

By Kathy Marks

Mungo Man's discovery rewrote history. Photo / AP
Mungo Man's discovery rewrote history. Photo / AP

In February 1974 geologist Jim Bowles came across a 42,000-year-old skeleton in a dry lake bed in outback New South Wales. The discovery rewrote Australian history and made headlines around the world, revealing that the continent had been occupied for twice as long as previously thought.

Forty years on, the three tribal groups from the area now known as Lake Mungo are calling for "Mungo Man" to be returned to his burial place. Although scientists long ago finished studying him, his bones - the oldest found in Australia, and among the oldest found outside Africa - are still in the Australian National University's archaeology department.

Bowles, whose discovery established that Aboriginal people belong to the world's oldest surviving culture, agrees that Mungo Man should go home. "[He] has spent too long in his cardboard box," he told the Australian.

Until Mungo Man was uncovered, it was believed Aborigines had been in Australia for about 20,000 years. That was the initial age ascribed to "Mungo Lady", a cremated female skeleton which Bowles found in the same area in 1967.

More advanced dating techniques later ascertained she was from a similar era to Mungo Man.

Although NSW heritage authorities have no objection to Mungo Man being repatriated, the process is complex and delicate - particularly given Aboriginal sensitivities about ancestral remains, which in the past were seized and studied without permission. Some remain in collections overseas.

The situation is also complicated by ongoing erosion at Lake Mungo and the need to construct a special "keeping place" for the bones. Mungo Lady, who was returned to the area in 1991, is still in a temporary keeping-place, awaiting reburial.

Artefacts found in the area date back 45,000 years, or 2000 generations. At the time when Mungo Man and Mungo Lady lived, some of Australia's megafauna still roamed the landscape.

When Bowles came across the first set of bones, it was like being confronted with "the very presence of humanity itself", he said.

Mungo Man is estimated to have been about 50 when he died and he had severe arthritis in his right elbow, probably from using a spear-thrower over many years.

Elders from the three Mungo tribes visited his bones at the ANU last year. One elder, Warren Clark, said at the time: "I felt really sick in the guts when I saw them. We were all appalled."

- NZ Herald

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