A discovery in the dunes
Lake Mungo was emblazoned on the national consciousness during the early 1970s, following the scientific discovery of the oldest-known burials of the First Australians. The human remains had emerged onto the surface of an eroding sand dune on the lake’s edge. At the time they were the oldest archaeological traces on the continent. In the decades since, Lake Mungo has become an icon of both Australia’s First Nations and the continent’s Ice-Age history.
The discovery of the site beside Lake Mungo in 1968 had extraordinarily far-reaching reverberations, doubling the known length of human occupation of Australia, energising the land rights movement and foreshadowing a new era of research engagement between Indigenous custodians and academics based on real partnerships. The site in far-western New South Wales contained the cremated remains of a young woman, referred to as “Mungo Lady” (or more recently “Mungo Woman”). It was found by geologist Jim Bowler, who in 1974 came across, nearby, an intact male skeleton, “Mungo Man”.
Mungo Lady’s burial was excavated by archaeologists including John Mulvaney and Rhys Jones – it was like being confronted with “the very presence of humanity itself”, Bowler later recounted. Both sites were dated to at least 40,000 years ago. Previously, it had been believed that occupation of Australia dated to 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Subsequent archaeological finds in Kakadu extended the timing to at least 65,000 years.
The Mungo pair made international headlines and transformed the national conversation about First Nations people’s connection to Country. While Aboriginal people were not surprised by evidence of a deep-time relationship to Country, which conformed with their understanding of their generations-long presence on the continent, research at Lake Mungo has nevertheless been pivotal in establishing the long history of human settlement in Australia in the broader Australian and international community. It profoundly altered the way Australians of non-Indigenous descent understood the relationship between Aboriginal people and the land to which they belong.
Traces of the past
Thanks to paleo-anthropologist Alan Thorne, who reconstructed Mungo Woman’s skull, we know she was tall and slender. Mungo Man was about 50, and 1.7 metres tall. His lower canine teeth were missing and he had osteoarthritis, possibly from repetitive spear throwing. Mungo Woman’s bones were partially burnt, in one of the world’s earliest recorded cremations. Mungo Man was daubed with ochre and buried on his back, with his hands crossed. Theirs was a society, it was clear, with complex spiritual belief systems.
Well-preserved traces of past human activity are contained in the eroding dune on the lake’s eastern edge: a cluster of tool-making debris, a hearth lit to cook a bettong, remnants associated with grindstones used to produce flour from wild grass seeds, an evocative trail of footprints impressed into an ancient mud flat. Initial research focused on the lake as a resource; more recent research analyses these traces for their vivid insights into economic and social strategies Aboriginal people developed in response to unfolding environmental and climatic changes over the millennia in which they have inhabited the land.
Protecting cultural heritage
While the discovery of Mungo Woman and Mungo Man energised Aboriginal self-determination movements during the 1970s and 1980s, and further legitimised land rights claims, Traditional Owners of the Willandra Lakes region surrounding Lake Mungo – the Paakantji/Barkindji, Ngiyampaa and Mutthi Mutthi people – were, as historian Billy Griffiths has noted, deeply concerned.
Ancestral remains had been removed from Country without their consent, and scores more burial sites were being excavated at Mungo without consultation with Aboriginal custodians or the input of their vast knowledge.
Elders led by senior women Alice Kelly, Tibby Briar, Elsie Jones & Alice Bugmy, passionate advocates for Indigenous rights, campaigned steadfastly for protection of cultural heritage and repatriation of the human remains. They won the support of archaeologist Isabel McBryde.
Eventually, divisions were bridged. Aboriginal people were trained and participated in archaeological work, and became joint managers of Lake Mungo, a national park since 1979, and of the Willandra Lakes, which became a World Heritage area in 1981. Traditional owners obtained a right of veto over research activity.
This heralded a new, cross-cultural research approach, which has seen non-Indigenous academics form genuine partnerships with Indigenous researchers and holders of traditional knowledge on a range of projects. Bowler and other academics became important voices in the calls to repatriate remains.
Mungo Woman and Mungo Man were finally handed back to their descendants in 1992 and 2017, respectively. Harvey Johnston, Daryl Pappin and their team made significant contributions to a reburial proposal and played a big part in bringing not only Mungo Man home, but in repatriation of 108 ancestors in the Willandra collection. Other human remains since found in the eroding dunes have been left in place. Since the mid-1980s, the Elders have had a policy of covering and stabilising the burials in situ.
In 2003 Alice Kelly’s granddaughter, ranger Mary Pappin Jnr, discovered the world’s largest collection of fossilised human footprints in the area, dating from about 20,000 years ago.
The Willandra Lakes are recognised as a living cultural landscape, fundamental to the lives of the Traditional Owners. There is now an interpretation centre at Lake Mungo, with Indigenous rangers and guides leading visitors over this extraordinary landscape.
Lake Mungo is a symbol of Indigenous Australia, representing the timeless and ongoing relationship the nation’s First Peoples have with this island continent. It exemplifies the concept of “Deep-time Dreaming” and what it means for Traditional Owners and their continuing custodianship of Country in the twenty-first century.
*We are grateful to the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Aboriginal Advisory Group for their review, input, and permissions provided for this article.