In a discovery that rewrote Australian history, a geologist named Jim Bowles came across a set of bones in a dry lake bed in outback New South Wales in 1974.
The skeleton turned out to be 42,000 years old – which meant the continent had been occupied for twice as long as was previously thought and that Aboriginal people belonged to the world’s oldest surviving culture.
“Mungo Man” – he was found in an area now known as Lake Mungo – made headlines around the world and his remains were meticulously studied. Now, 40 years on, Aboriginal elders are calling for him to be returned home. Estimated to have been about 50 when he died (a ripe old age for a hunter-gatherer), Mungo Man is stored at the archaeology department of the Australian National University (ANU). Bowles agrees he should be returned to his burial place. “[He] has spent too long in his cardboard box,” he told The Australian.
Although neither academics nor heritage authorities object to the bones being repatriated, the process is complex and delicate – particularly given Aboriginal sensitivities about ancestral remains, which in the past were seized and studied without permission. Some remain in collections overseas.
The situation is also complicated by erosion at Lake Mungo and the need to construct a special “keeping place” for the bones. Elders from three Mungo tribes visited his remains at the ANU last year. One elder, Warren Clark, said: “I felt really sick in the guts when I saw them. We were all appalled.”