It was on this day in 1974 that a young geologist, Jim Bowler, was traversing Lake Mungo in south-western New South Wales, when he spotted something poking out of the soil.
Upon closer inspection he realised it was the tip of a human skull.
With the help of anthropologist Alan Thorne, the excavation revealed a complete adult male skeleton. The unearthing of the remains tells of Australia’s most historically significant stories.
Mungo Man dated back 40,000 years.
Archaeologists had dated back the history of Indigenous Australians at only 20,000 years. But this new discovery smashed that theory, and sent shockwaves throughout the scientific world.
He remains the oldest human remains found in Australia.
Mungo Man’s remains live at the Australian National University in Canberra, but the traditional owners - the Muthi Muthi, Ngempa and Barkandji people - want him back.
Return Mungo Man: Professor Jim Bowler, founder of Mungo Man and professor at Melbourne University
Aboriginal people have been so abused, they have been killed, harassed and massacred but words hurt. Words are like bullets, they affect every member of the community and it has gone on since early Australia.
The abuse is alive and it’s vile and has never been retracted. There’s no recognition that Aboriginal people were deprived of their dignity. It is time to acknowledge this by white Australia.
We have so much to learn from Aboriginal cultures, we have to return that sense of dignity and that sense of dignity goes with the moment of the return of Mungo Man, that man with requiem worthy of any cathedral now awaits acknowledgement at the national level.
He’s return home is the moment in which white Australia must acknowledge the extraordinary sophistication of Indigenous cultures, a Mungo Man and his connections to country and that connection which survives in Aboriginal people.
Today it's time for Malcolm Turnball to take the moment to acknowledge that debt we owe. To acknowledge the damage done to Aboriginal indignity, and to celebrate those moments where both human remains, and the past denigration of indignity come together in the acknowledgment of Mungo Man’s return.
A place of pride and joy: Luke Pearson, IndigenousX
Mungo Man and Mungo Lady show the oldest evidence of ritual burial, and of religion itself, and are among the oldest human remains ever found outside of Africa. They helped to challenge the early misguided ‘scientific’ beliefs of Europeans about Aboriginal people, culture, and history.
I have been lucky to have spent some time in and around Lake Mungo on a few different occasions. I am always overwhelmed and humbled by the beauty, power, and history that it presents to those who choose to see it.
To see how people adapted to, and interacted with such massive shifts in climate and the availability of resources, to see artefacts at your feet that could easily be thousands of years old, and to see communities still connected to that place, still practicing culture, and keeping those stories alive, fills me with a sense of pride and joy.
Today being the anniversary of the discovery of the remains of the Mungo Man also gives us pause to reflect on the importance of repatriation of human remains to those places where they belong, and the healing for communities that it represents.
Greatest story of humanity: Robert Biggs, Chair, Mungo Youth Project
I first encountered Mungo Man in 1977 when a young science teacher walked down a sand dune with Jim Bowler. He pointed out the pebbles on the beach, 30,000 years ago this was full of fresh water that modern human beings lived in. That moment rearranged my thinking about who we are and Australia’s First Peoples.
From there I gained important insights into Australia, and the significant place of First Australians.
I was a teacher, and slowly the teaching of Aboriginal history was disappearing.
Our project is finding a way to teach the true history of Australia. We bring kids to country with mentors and elders and they teach each other about what they’ve learnt.
Mungo Man has provided us with real insight and ongoing connection to land. Kids come and learn and understand connection, they engage with elders and get insight into success, on country experience, they take responsibility for their own learning and they have access to the greatest story of humanity.
We allow Australians to see one of the most extraordinary stories on the planet. Mungo is a place of learning and a place of world significance, along with Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef – it has world heritage value, and culture is at the fore of the project.