After more than forty years away from country, the ancient remains of Mungo Man have finally been returned home to his ancestral homelands. Our reporter Nakari Thorpe traveled with Traditional Owners on their long-awaited journey from Canberra to Mungo Man's final resting place.
18 Nov 2017 - 4:40 PM  UPDATED 19 Nov 2017 - 1:25 PM

It was a 1976 black Chrysler Valiant station wagon that brought Mungo Man home.

His descendents didn't want it any other way. 

The Mutti Mutti, Ngiyampaa and Paakantji peoples, the Traditional Owners of the area where Mungo Man was found, requested to have the stationary vehicle restored, after almost thirty years off the road.

The historic hearse, with the Aboriginal flag emblazoned on the doors, has carried Aboriginal people to their final resting place since the 1970s.

It made the journey home for Mungo Man much more momentous.

After an epic three-day road trip through south-western New South Wales, Australia's oldest known human remains are back home with his ancestors at Lake Mungo.

His journey home began in a sweltering car park at the National Museum of Australia's storage facility in Mitchell, just 10 kilometres north of Canberra. It was here Mungo Man, and around 100 other Aboriginal people, lay for the past two years.

The smouldering smoke of gum leaves filled the air and around the hearse. The remains were then carefully placed, one by one, by their modern descendants into the back of the wagon.

Mungo Man's casket was specially-designed, made of 8000 year old red gum wood, and donated by Dr Jim Bowler, the man who discovered him in the early 1970s.

After an emotional send off in Canberra by Ngunnawal Elders, Mungo Man and the ancestors headed west toward Wiradjuri country closely followed by a convoy.

By the afternoon, they reached Wagga Wagga, and greeted with traditional song, dance and ceremony.

Wiradjuri Elder Aunty Joyce said that having the ancestors come through the town was indescribable.

"It is something very, very special. To be able to help, not only one but several of the ancestors to be on a journey, and we've been able to guide and protect them," she said.

"I am very honoured to be a part of something very special. [I’m] very tearful, but it’s not tears of sadness, it’s tears of joy that the government has finally handed over our people to put them down to rest."

The feeling of mixed emotions filled the 800-kilometre journey.

"We're relieved at the moment, but at the same time it's sad because we know we're going through country, through other people's country, and I know they're all excited for us," said Mutti Mutti Elder Mary Pappin. 

The following morning the convoy drove another few hours west to meet more Wiradjuri mob in the small Riverina town of Hay.

Driving through the main street, Mungo Man and the ancestors brought the town to stand-still.

Young dancers of the Tirkandi Inaburra group, painted up in red lap-laps, eucalyptus leaves in hand, led the hearse to the centre of the ceremony.

They performed traditional dance before the 200-strong crowd and the ancestors. A group of local school kids watched on in awe.

Speaking to Elders, Wiradjuri man Ray Woods, reminisced of the time Mungo Man travelled through their country before only to return on his way back home.

"He's gone through once before and now we're paying him respects for him to go home, and he revealed himself to Jim [Bowler] in 74' for a reason, and that was to tell his story," he said.

That story is one of epic proportions, and Dr Bowler knows his discovery was no coincidence.

He said Mungo Man came with a message: "’What have you whitefellas done to my land and what you have done to my people?' That's the challenge for all of us."

Just on the outskirts of Lake Mungo, the town of Balranald was waiting for Mungo's arrival. They were the last stop before the remains reached their final resting place.

The local Mutti Mutti people did not take their task lightly, bringing the ceremony to the Aboriginal cemetery where their other ancestors lay.

Upon arrival, a smoky fire was blazing and Mutti Mutti Elder Dave Edwards held a commanding presence.

Didge in hand, with traditional white and brown ochre smeared across his face, Uncle Dave danced around the fire, pointing to the flames. 

"All the Elders of the past, that's them there."

Hundreds of gatherers joined in unison, holding their hands to the sky, paying their respects to the ancestors.

But the pinnacle of the journey had only just begun.

Lake Mungo was just kilometres away, the place where Mungo Man was found all of those years ago.

And before taking off, a special ceremony was held at the town's cultural centre to commemorate the return of Mungo Man and the work of Alice Kelly, a respected Mutti Mutti Elder and Mary Pappin's mother, who began the courageous fight decades before.

Mary Pappin was elated to see her mother honoured.

"She fought hard for recognition, for her people. I'm very happy to see that most of the town's folk have come here to acknowledge that of her and of course of the Mutti Mutti people."

The road to Lake Mungo was filled with red dirt, rocky tracks, and a whole bunch of nerves.

Ngiyampaa man Steve Meredith, from the Office of Environment and Heritage, had been anxiously waiting for this day to come for years.

"I've been nervous for three years."

Hundreds of people gathered at the crest of a hill overlooking Lake Mungo, stretching for kilometres across the horizon. Small bushes, emus and kangaroos could be seen wandering the now dry lake, and out to the distance the breathtaking 'Walls of China.' And then to the left, an Elder pointed out the very place where Mungo Man was found.

It was at this point that the historical significance of this moment became even more overwhelming.

The ceremony began with the hearse's arrival. Young Aboriginal men emptied the boxes containing the remains of their ancestors and placed purposefully around the fire.

A sense of relief became visible on the faces of the Elders.

Paakantji Elder Warren Clarke said his countless years of work in this area never matched the significance of today.

"I've been involved in lots of projects, but this one has meant so much. It's really touched me," he said.

Ngiyampaa Elder Roy Kennedy said Mungo Man's discovery made the Australian nation stronger.

"It's been a long journey, but over that journey we've learned a lot. Mungo Man told us that," he said.

"It makes me a very proud person to be a part of this, and to stand here to witness."

While the almost three-day trip to get Mungo Man and the Ancestors home was long and wearing, the journey has been a much longer fought battle.

For 43 years, Mungo Man lay at the Australian National University in Canberra where scientists found more about this ancient fossil. His discovery, by Dr Bowler in 1974 on the banks of Lake Mungo, shocked the scientific world.

They soon discovered his remains dated back to more than 40,000 years, smashing the theory that Aboriginal people dated back to only 20,000 years. 

While Traditional Owners were at first angered by the removal of their Ancestors, they've come to realise the significance it has meant to the history of First Nations people.

Over the years, the relationship between Traditional Owners and scientists has evolved.

And today, Traditional Owners are relieved to see their Ancestors back where they belong.

"[It is] so good to have him back after all those years he has been taken away, and we've been waiting all those years to get him back and I'm so glad he is back, to put him in his resting place," said Ngiyampaa Elder Joan Slade.

The acknowledgment to Mungo Man and around 100 other Ancestors continue with a concert in their honour that will take place in nearby Mildura on Saturday evening. 

Legendary singer and songwriter Archie Roach, Kutcha Edwards, Shane Howard and Isaiah Firebrace are among a cast of performers at the 'Return to Country' event. It comes after Traditional Owners gathered in Melbourne's Federation Square to raise funds for the event. 

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