view gallery The eroding Willandra Lakes lunettes are littered with fossils and archaeological artefacts such as this wombat skeleton. Image Credit: Michael Amendolia

Messages from Mungo

  • BY John Pickrell |
  • June 15, 2015

Forty years ago the remains of a man were found at Lake Mungo in NSW. This discovery would forever change our understanding of the Aboriginal history of Australia

This story is a finalist for the 2015 Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing, the winner of which will be announced in October.

IT'S ALMOST SILENT, but all around me shift the sands of time. I am sitting on a dune 50m above the saltbush plains at Mungo National Park, in south-western NSW. A cool breeze carries with it fine grains of silica, and the soft glow of first light is beginning to illuminate a series of emu tracks that trail past me and disappear over the crest of the dune. Just a little while earlier, the Milky Way had been a clear streak across the sky, and Venus, Mars and Saturn were all bright points of light. There was even the brief and exciting flare of a shooting star - a distant traveller met with a fiery demise.

Aboriginal people have camped here on this very dune and on others like it in the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area (WHA) for more than 50 millennia, beginning long before modern humans had even arrived in Western Europe. On countless occasions, they have looked out at the rising sun and seen the same night sky awash with twinkling stars. Beneath me in the dune are their stone tools, the baked hearths of their cooking fires, and their carefully buried or cremated human remains.

Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in Australia, you can feel a connection to the first people who arrived more than 60,000 years ago. They were at the front of a wave of migration that carried small bands of travellers on an almost implausible journey, by foot and over many generations, from Africa and along the coasts of Asia. Eventually - via an ocean crossing from Indonesia that was shorter than it would be today due to lower sea levels - they made their way to northern Australia.

The first occupation sites in Australia are below today's sea level, so we're unlikely to ever find traces of them. Perhaps the earliest evidence of these migrants is a rock shelter, known as Malakunanja II, located about 50km inland from the Arnhem Land coast. Here, alongside rock art, the remains of stone tools, grinding stones, ochre and charcoal have been found, the oldest of which are about 55,000 years old.

The next evidence we have of people living in Australia comes from Mungo National Park and the wider Willandra Lakes area - and here it is abundant. In geological layers dated as far back as 50,000 years, there are stone tools and hearths, shellfish middens and butchered animal bones. 

Australia's Aboriginal people have the oldest continuous culture on the planet and today we take its great antiquity for granted, but this wasn't always so. When now-retired professor Jim Bowler stumbled upon the cremated remains that came to be known as Mungo Lady, in 1969, it suggested Aboriginal people had been here far longer than scientists suspected. But it was his 1974 discovery of Mungo Man that really startled the world.

The discovery of Mungo man

IN 1974 Jim was working as a geologist with the Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra, looking at rocks in the south-western corner of NSW to find clues about ancient climate change; he wasn't an archaeologist and he hadn't set out to find human remains. "I wanted to unwrap the story of the climatic legacy written in the Australian landscape," Jim tells me when I meet him at Mungo on a warm autumn day, the air thick with flies. "My agenda was to explore the dry inland country, the dune systems and salt lakes. I was reconstructing the impact of Ice Age climatic change." 

Few people had explored the now-dry ancient lakebeds that spanned the sheep stations in this remote spot. Jim was mapping them for the first time. "I was able to identify the shorelines of the lakes, and in them, find stone tools and shells and evidence of human remains. That completely changed the importance of the system," says Jim, now in his 80s and living in Melbourne.

Here, five years earlier, he had found Mungo Lady - hundreds of fragments of bone, now known to be the world's earliest recorded cremation. Although the true age of this find was not realised until later, it was clear it was a globally significant discovery. At this time, scientists believed Aboriginal people had arrived in Australia some 15-20,000 years ago, but this figure was about to be corrected dramatically.

In 1974 prolonged rain confined Jim to the shearers' quarters at Mungo station. On 26 February the conditions improved and he was excited as heavy rains expose new artefacts. Little did Jim realise that this would be a historic day. "I hunted along in the same area as Mungo Lady. In that part of the landscape, when you get your eye in, you can follow a particular geological horizon - it's like a geological map, with layers that are 20, 30, 40 thousand years old," he says.

Less than half a kilometre from where Mungo Lady was found, he stopped dead in his tracks. "I spotted the tip of a white bone. I brushed away and it was clearly a skull;and I brushed away a bit further and the mandible was attached. And I thought, 'Holy shit! This is the companion to Mungo Lady.' I raced to the nearest shearing station and got on the telephone to Canberra; I thought, 'I'm not going to touch this; this is a specialist job.'"

It was another day before archaeological heavyweight Professor Alan Thorne arrived from ANU with a truckload of assistants and the excavation began. They had only to strip off 10-15cm of topsoil. Rarely are excavations this simple. A deeper trench was dug to reveal sediments above and below the skeleton, which could later be used to help date it. It wasn't until much later (and after significant scientific debate) that a series of studies confirmed that both Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were about 40-42,000 years old, but Jim's knowledge of geological layers already told him the remains were older than any others in Australia.

As the excavations proceeded, the researchers found red pellets and staining in the grave. It began to dawn on Jim that this was a kind of ochre used as body paint by Aboriginal people today. "There's no ochre for miles around here - you have to transport it in. Then you have the ritual of grinding the ochre. There was a fire alongside the burial... so perhaps a smoking ceremony. The ochre was ground up and painted or sprinkled on. Either way, it demonstrates this community around him was in mourning. It's the sort of ceremony and ritual that does justice to any church service today." These were among the world's earliest recorded funerary rites.

The bones of both Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, as well as the fragmentary remains of as many as 100 other people found at Willandra, made their way into ANU collections in Canberra during the 1970s and '80s. The NSW State Government purchased Mungo station and turned it into a national park in 1979 (funds from Australian Geographic's founder Dick Smith helped establish the visitors centre, which includes a small museum).

Gazetting of the larger WHA followed in 1981. However, unease and resentment would grow in the following years because the remains were removed from Willandra without consultation with people from the area's three Aboriginal groups, the Paakantyi (also spelled Barkandji), Ngiyampaa and Mutthi Mutthi.

Human occupation goes back 40,000 years at Willandra

THE WILLANDRA LAKES Region World Heritage Area covers 2400sq.km of semi-arid saltbush plains, dunes and sparse woodlands in the Murray Basin of south-western NSW. It consists of 19 dry relict lakes (see map) that were once filled with meltwater flowing west along the Willandra Creek from the Great Dividing Range.

These Pleistocene-era lakes, which were full from about 50,000 years ago, vary in size from 6 to 350sq.km; all have crescent-moon-shaped dunes called lunettes on their eastern sides, formed by prevailing winds. Mungo NP itself covers about 70 per cent of Lake Mungo, including the striking Walls of China, which are part of the lake's 26km-long lunette.

As the last last ice age (which ran from about 110,000 to about 12,000 years ago) waned, the glacial ice dwindled and water no longer flowed from the highlands to replenish the lakes, the last of which dried up 17,500 years ago. Despite their age, the flat expanses of the lake floors and the dune systems that surrounded them are still obvious today.

While the lakes were full, the lush wetland system teemed with life. People would have camped along the shores, hunting and foraging for freshwater mussels, yabbies, golden perch and Murray cod, as well as emus, kangaroos and other large species. The fossils of more than 55 animals have been found in the lunettes - snakes and wombats, but also extinct species such as Procoptodon and Genyornis. Alongside the animal fossils are stone tools and ancient fireplaces that reveal extensive human occupation. Most significant, though, are the human remains scattered throughout the eroding dunes.

"Some of the very earliest modern human remains in the world are here at Mungo," says Harvey Johnston, a NSW Office of Environment and Heritage archaeologist, who's been involved with Willandra since the late 1980s. "You have this record of human occupation going back 40,000 years and burials and ceremonies associated with that: cremations, burials with ochre, multiple individuals and burials with unusual features."

A number of other scientifically significant remains have been discovered at Willandra but never disturbed or studied, in line with the wishes of the area's Aboriginal custodians. 'Mungo Child', as it has become known to scientists, was discovered in 1987 and may be of similar antiquity to Mungo Man. "There are no other juvenile skeletons in this 40,000-year age range in the entire Australian and Asian region," says Dr Michael Westaway, from Griffith University, in Brisbane. "The remains of Homo sapiens of this antiquity are very, very rare globally."

When the top of the juvenile skull was discovered, just a few centimetres of sand were brushed off it before it was reburied. "It was never fully excavated," Harvey says. "Some years later, part of the mandible [jaw] became exposed through natural erosion, and confirmed it was clearly an adolescent or child." Since the mid 1980s, park rangers swiftly rebury any exposed human remains, often covering them with shadecloth to retard erosion.

Mungo National Park's history

"IT'S INCREDIBLE TO think this place was a freshwater lake filled with fish and mussels and people fishing - and it just dried up. Nature has its own way of doing things," says Mutthi Mutthi elder Mary Pappin. Mary is one of a number of passionate and outspoken Aboriginal women who've pushed hard for the rights of their people here. Her late mother, Alice Kelly, led the fight to have Mungo Lady returned to the park in the 1990s (the remains have since been kept in a locked vault on site).

"Every time I'm out there I know I'm walking with my mob. With my elders, my past and my present," Mary says. "It's just something that you feel and it makes you proud to know you belong to a race of people that survived in a landscape for many thousands of years without destroying it."

Along with the Paakantyi and the Ngiyampaa, the Mutthi Mutthi are custodians of Willandra today. Mutthi Mutthi country lies east and south of Willandra; it encompasses sections of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers. Paakantyi land stretches north from the Victoria border, to Broken Hill and Wilcannia. It includes sections of the Darling River and its tributaries. The Ngiyampaa once inhabited the plains and hills east of the Darling River and north of Willandra Creek. People of these three groups now live largely in local towns such as Ivanhoe, Pooncarie, Mildura, Balranald, Hay and Wilcannia.

The issues surrounding the unearthing and scientific study of human remains at Willandra are complex and sensitive. The Aboriginal community feels they have an unbroken connection with the people buried here and a responsibility to see their spirits left in peace. "These are relatives. These are ancestors," Harvey says. "The people are associated with these remains in a very strong way. That's very critical to the whole equation."

Ngiyampaa elder Roy Kennedy says his people are unhappy about what happened here in the '70s and '80s. "They just come in and dug them out of the ground, took them to Canberra without any consultation. That in my book is wrong," he says. "It's alright for white blokes to come out here and dig up Aboriginal people, throw them in a box and take them down to Canberra and scan them, rescan them, turn them over and put them back in their box. But if we tried that - went into a white fella cemetery and done that - we'd have been shot."

Paakantyi man Ricky Mitchell is a community project coordinator with the Willandra Lakes Region WHA. He says the remains at ANU are "crying to come home to country. The country where they're held, it's not their country. They want to come back out here and then they'll rest."

In the 1970s, when Mungo Man's remains were estimated at 40,000 years old, this was startling for many, though perhaps not for Aboriginal Australians, who'd always known from their Dreamtime narratives that their ancestors had been here a long time. It was modern science confirming what Aboriginal people knew all along, says Harvey. Nevertheless, the discovery was profoundly significant and its implications still reverberate today. The phrase "40,000 years" was quickly adopted by land rights campaigners and became a tremendously powerful political statement used to reinforce messages of Aboriginal heritage, history and ownership.

Mary Pappin believes the bones returned to the surface for a purpose. As she said to Jim 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."

The return of Mungo Man

ON 25 FEBRUARY 2014, almost 40 years to the day since his extraordinary find, Jim made an impassioned plea in a number of newspapers for Mungo Man to finally be returned to Willandra. Jim argues that the bones have yielded all they can to research and that the NSW State Government and ANU should fast-track their return. "Keeping him in a cardboard box for 40 years is long enough. It doesn't mean that's the end of scientific research by any means, but it's time for him to come home to his country. I won't be here in another 10 years, and I feel a sense of responsibility."

For many years, plans have been discussed for a mausoleum or crypt to be built to house the remains. This subterranean 'Keeping Place' would see Mungo Man, Mungo Lady and the others returned to the ground, but it would also comprise a research facility so study could continue. A new visitor centre would be incorporated above ground. Designs have already been outlined by leading Australian architects Gregory Burgess and Glenn Murcutt. However, funding to realise this vision has yet to materialise, and support is growing from some in the community for the bones to simply be returned to the ground as repatriated remains have been in other parts of Australia.

"There are ongoing discussions that are complex both in terms of cultural agreement and the architecture of the physical construction," Jim says. Robyn Parker, former NSW minister for the environment, told reporters in February: "While we are committed to the repatriation as soon as possible, the decision as to what will occur with the ancestral remains rests with the traditional owners... and those discussions are continuing."

Harvey says that although, in principle, there would be no objection from ANU if the traditional owners turned up tomorrow to collect the remains, many questions are still to be answered - such as how they will be returned, whether the 100 or so other sets of human remains at ANU will also be returned, and if the remains will be made accessible to scientists. These questions are currently being considered by Paakantyi, Ngiyampaa and Mutthi Mutthi elders, who are yet to decide when and how the remains will be returned.

Michael Westaway is among few experts who've completed a detailed analysis of the wider collection of Willandra remains, and, over the years, has had support from elders for most of the research he has asked to do. He agrees the remains should be returned, but not that research has been exhausted. "There's new technology, such as protein sequencing of DNA. While other ancient DNA techniques have failed, this might actually work," he says.

"We've got these fantastic new tools and even though the fossils are fragmentary, they can still tell us a great deal." Working with Professors David Lambert at Griffith University and Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, Michael has attempted to sequence DNA from Mungo Man, and plans to compare it with the DNA of living members of the three tribal groups.

The results will be published in coming months. He says he's hoping for more time to use new ANU facilities before the remains are returned. Then, with luck, if they end up in a Keeping Place at Mungo, researchers would still have access, but the elders would have more control. "The fossils will be back in the landscape and hopefully from that there will be more willingness on the part of the elders for research."

Country means different things to different communities

FORTY-TWO-THOUSAND years ago, people at Willandra lived a relatively easy life. Game was abundant and fish were easy to catch. Aged about 50, the man whose remains came to be buried in the Mungo lunette was coming to the end of his life. He had watched his final sunrise and sunset over the dune.

Four decades of throwing spears had given him an arthritic elbow, and on his last night, he sat by the fire rubbing it for the last time. His teeth were similarly worn from a lifetime stripping water reeds to make twine.

Ritual was important to his people, and in his youth his canine teeth had been knocked out in an initiation ceremony. After he died that night, ritual played its part when his family gathered in mourning to bury him in the dune. As pungent smoke from smouldering branches of emu bush filled the air, they placed him on his back, hands crossed in his lap, and sprinkled him with precious red ochre. Much of this we know from clues in his grave. For the next 40 millennia, Mungo Man's people found a way to survive by sustainably managing the landscape. As the Ice Age waxed and waned, and waters came and went, they adapted and thrived.

Many years and countless generations later, Mary Pappin thinks back to the lives of her ancestors. She points out that Europeans have been here for just 200 years, less than 1 per cent of that time, yet have already wrought irreparable damage. You can see this on a small scale at Mungo, in the way grazing pressure has caused the dunes to collapse.

"Aboriginal people have an intense commitment to country even today. Europeans have lost that connection. Country to us is something you dig up and export to China," Jim says. "Mungo Man's return now is essential, because it's only when he comes back to his country that his message will really come to life and be heard across Australia. That message is about what have we done to his land and what have we done to his people."