• Photo courtesy of Jim Bowler (Jim Bowler)Source: Jim Bowler
The oldest modern human remains ever found on the continent are at risk of being lost in secret burial ceremonies, angering First Nations communities.
Jennetta Quinn-Bates

29 Jul 2021 - 1:45 PM  UPDATED 2 Aug 2021 - 3:47 PM

The human remains started revealing themselves in the late 1960s and, after scientific analysis, experts determined they were at least 42,000 years old.

Archaeologist and biological anthropologist Michael Westaway emphasised the significance of the finds.

“In the Willandra, we have the opportunity to see a large (degree) of variation in a population during the last Ice Age, and there are hardly any other places on the planet that provide that opportunity," Dr Westaway said.

The Willandra Lakes Region in south western NSW, home of Lake Mungo, was one of the first sites in Australia to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage property in 1981 because of the magnitude of the finds.

Analysis of multiple artefacts and human remains found at Lake Mungo confirm the earliest human occupation on the continent dates back at least 45,000 years. Though Aboriginal people say they’ve been here much longer, since time immemorial.

But there are fears that history could soon be reburied and lost forever, with a NSW government proposal to rebury the 108 remains in secret, unmarked graves across 26 sites in the World Heritage Listed area.

A Keeping Place

Instead, there are renewed calls for a Keeping Place and Cultural Centre, where the remains can be respectfully returned to country, but also honoured, and studied.

Decades-old discussions show elders from the time the remains were discovered agreed a Keeping Place was needed on Country, to house the remains and other significant artefacts from the area.

Custodians proposed the Keeping Place would have critical input from the traditional tribal groups involved and could accommodate any further analysis or research contributing any findings to education.

Mungo Man was amongst the last of the 108 remains to be returned to Country in 2017, and they have been kept at the Mungo National Park Visitor Centre since then.

In late 2018, after frustrating years of fighting unsuccessfully for a Keeping Place, an Aboriginal Advisory Group to government decided the remains should be reburied, and research halted.

First Nations communities and scientific experts are worried time is running out to develop a Keeping Place, with the possible reburial expected to happen within months, once approved.

A formal proposal by the NSW State Government indicates private reburials may take place between September and December this year - a move that has sent feelings of despair through the First Nations' communities and the scientific world alike.

As the area is on the World Heritage List, approval for reburial is a matter for the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment (DAWE) under the Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). A decision is expected within weeks.

Mungo Lady & Mungo Man

The remains including the extraordinary Mungo Lady and Mungo Man are the oldest modern human remnants found outside of Africa. The internationally-acclaimed discovery rewrote the stories of our earliest ancient civilisations.

Mungo Lady came to the surface in the late sixties. Geologist Jim Bowler found what he said looked like burnt bones in 1968. Bringing in archaeologists John Mulvaney and Rhys Jones to assist, an unmistakable human jaw was revealed a year later in what Dr Bowler described as “the very presence of humanity itself.”

Mungo Lady provides the earliest evidence of cremation on earth, indicating she was clearly mourned by her family.

Mungo Man’s remains were found in 1974 sprinkled in red ochre. He is believed to have been about 50 when he died. Buried on his back with his hands crossed in his lap, Mungo Man and Mungo Lady are the earliest evidence of ceremonial burial on the planet.

Mutual desire to preserve history 

Many people have been involved in discussions about what should happen with the remains, including multiple scientific experts and three traditional owner groups the Paakintyi, Ngyiampaa and the Mutthi Mutthi people.

A ten-day public submission period for the proposed reburial of the remains closed on July 22.

Mutthi Mutthi Elder, Mary Pappin said when the old people returned, First Nations people had been struggling to find their place in society.

“They came up because they knew (about) the struggle with Aboriginal Australia, and Aboriginal people in making their way in society but not getting recognised.”

The ancient remains were removed from the earth just two years after Aboriginal people were recognised in the 1967 referendum.

Native Title declarations show the Paakintyi people are the Traditional Owners of a majority of the land the remains were found on, (about 80%) but they said even that hasn’t given them a voice in a final resting place.

Paakintyi spokesperson Michael Young described the governments proposal as secretive, and said there had been a lack of consultation, reflecting how business surrounding the finds had been conducted for years.

“We never get told anything," he said.

"Very rarely will we get any information coming through from OEH (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage) or the AAG (Aboriginal Advisory Group). They refuse to engage with the local community.

"They’ve left a lot of Elders out and we’re still in a situation where we’re still trying to find out all of the information.”

Although they represent different tribal groups and have had seemingly different opinions over the years, the flawed consultation process was also highlighted by Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly.

Referring to the report by the NSW government he said:“It was a 108 or 109-page document and it’s all around the reburial but it’s just full of lies.”  

“It says that we never ever wanted a Keeping Place, we never ever wanted a cultural centre, we never ever wanted memorials or marked graves for Mungo Man and Mungo Lady and that all of our people have been consulted. And clearly they haven’t.”

In terms of community consultation, he said there was no resources for consulting with members of the community and the only funds provided to the AAG were to facilitate meetings between the group and Parks and Wildlife NSW.

What About First Nations History?

All agree it’s vital the stories of these most significant ancestors are properly acknowledged, and the history is preserved for future generations.

Paleoanthropologist Mike Westaway said it would be a great loss if a secret burial went ahead.

“To erase any chance of telling that story it’s a national tragedy," Dr Westaway said.

"It’s an international tragedy. It’s world heritage.”

The Federal Government said it had recently allocated $500,000 over two years to improve Indigenous heritage protection and Indigenous involvement in the the decision-making process over the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

This compares to $48.7 million committed in 2018 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of Captain Cook, or the $500 million put aside in February to redevelop of the Australian War Memorial.

Mungo Man's historic return celebrated with song and dance
After 43 years, the remains of Australia's oldest human have finally returned to its ancestral homelands. The historic repatriation was celebrated in a cultural showcase of traditional song and dance.