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Mungo Man moves to National Museum, but he’s still not home

The 40,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man were discovered in 1974 on the southern sector of the eroding Lake Mungo shoreline. Jim Bowler , Author provided

Mungo Man moves to National Museum, but he’s still not home

The figure of Mungo Man has emerged with iconic status, not only for Aboriginal history, but as a defining figure amplifying the very notion of how we see ourselves as Australian.

For many years, the traditional owners in western New South Wales, the Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji and Ngyiampaa peoples, have long desired the return home of the 40,000-year-old remains to the shores of Lake Mungo.

This foundation figure awaits his release from 41 years in custody of the Australian National University (ANU). A move has now begun that hopefully will eventually see his return home to those ancient shores of Lake Mungo from where he came.

A public seminar in Canberra on Thursday November 5 will conclude with a private ceremony and the transfer of the collection from ANU to the National Museum of Australia later in the week. Planned by the Indigenous repatriation committee as a celebratory occasion, many will participate in what is a long-awaited removal on one hand, but in no way a final resting place on the other.

The ceremony celebrates more an outing for remains held already too long in distant isolation. Sadly, his final return home remains unscheduled.

The original discovery

An entirely new generation of traditional people has grown up since the late Alan Thorne and I removed Mungo Man’s remains from Lake Mungo in 1974. Details of those earliest stimulating days remain only in the hearts and minds of now ageing members of that Aboriginal community.

Anthropologist Dr Alan Thorne meticulously uncovering the remains of Mungo Man in February 1974. Jim Bowler, Author provided

It is important, then, to record a few moments of those earliest times, when Australian history was changing almost by the day.

In 1974, in that remote saltbush country between the rivers, Aboriginal advice remained unavailable to us. Subsequently, when Mungo Man’s discovery was announced, Aboriginal people expressed anger that this should have been done without the permission of Aboriginal people.

But had we not removed those remains at the time, the wind-swept slopes of the Lake Mungo dune would have ensured their destruction within a single year. Without their removal there would be no World Heritage Area to celebrate today.

Challenged by Aboriginal representatives that this was just another insult inflicted by western science on Aboriginal remains, both Thorne and myself, together with archaeologists of the day, sat down with traditional people in dialogue on the sands of Lake Mungo to build the bridges.

Those were Whitlam years, times of passion, land rights and questions of who owns history. The dialogue was, at times, quite vigorous!

Aboriginal people protested that, in the establishment of 40,000 years occupancy: “You scientists are only telling us what we already know. We came from this land. We have always been here!”

But to have that reality emblazoned on television screens across the country under the image of Mungo Man was recognised as a bridge of mutual understanding. On those Mungo sands, the passions of science and traditional cultures found common ground.

In what is no less than a remarkable sense of mutual collaboration, each acknowledged learning from the other.

Mutual understanding

In 1989, a formal document of accord was signed between Aboriginal Elders and scientists at Lake Mungo. That accord has provided the basis for mutual understanding for more than two decades.

The excavation and later dating of remains to 40,000 years was marked by an extraordinary phenomenon. Mungo Man’s remains, meticulously laid out in a carefully prepared grave, had been anointed by ochre.

Raw material (hematite) of that precious pigment, the symbolism of blood and life, is unavailable there for several hundred kilometres. It had to be imported, ground and used as anointing symbol on the body.

The remnants of an ancient fireplace alongside the grave – a source of smoke, a symbol of cleansing – completed another detail of this extraordinary ritual.

In that ochre anointing, Mungo Man and his community expressed a connection with the Earth. It was a connection, not only to the climatically changing lake and dune environments of that time, but equally to the wider dynamic of sun in the day and blazing stars at night.

Those people had a deep connection to that land; it was one of cosmic awareness. To find that same connection alive and well in Aboriginal descendants today, expressed so clearly in song-lines, Dreamtime creation spirits and acknowledged so eloquently in many Aboriginal voices is no less than remarkable.

In the 1950s, a remark by an Elder of Port Keats to anthropologist Bill Stanner provided him with the title for his book White Man got no Dreaming. To me, that man was really saying: “You white mob don’t know who you are!”

Mungo Man’s final expression of identity with nature has something special to offer. It is one that we of rational market-based Western society have largely lost.

His voice on these issues awaits his return home. For so long waiting in silence, it is a voice with messages for all Australians to hear.

The proprietors of Mungo Station, Albert and Venda Barnes, with Dr Alan Thorne at the 40,000 year old grave, Mungo Man excavation, February 1974. Jim Bowler, Author provided

A final resting place

This national figure requires a nationally appropriate resting place at Lake Mungo. But despite years of appeal towards that end, both Commonwealth and State governments have failed dismally to honour this request.

Mungo Man’s journey to the National Museum will appear to many as a retrograde step. Although it may be a question of frustration (there is nowhere else to put him), positive leverage follows transfer from academia to now direct Commonwealth responsibility.

Under the museum charter and on his watch in Canberra, the long-awaited return of Mungo Man becomes a challenge for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to address.

The world is watching. This stop-over in the museum must be a short one, securing certainty for that final journey home. That day will be one of national celebration for what it means to be Australian. This move must hasten that event.

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