mungo man
Geologist Jim Bowler found the remains of "Mungo Man" in February 1974. He is thought to be the oldest human ever uncovered on the Australian continent. wikicommons

This is a story about bones. About what can and can’t be explained by them, and the tales we choose for them to tell. It spans more than 50,000 years, but it begins like it ends, in a remote corner of the red-rubbled Australian Outback some 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of Sydney known as Lake Mungo.

Lake Mungo isn’t actually a lake -- at least not anymore. But up until about 20,000 years ago, this lunar-like landscape of silver-blue saltbush and antagonistic flies was a lush lagoon teeming with fish and waterbirds.

It was an Aboriginal paradise with easy hunting and abundant resources. These early humans shared the land with jumbo-sized kangaroos, mammoth wombats, and emus of a scale that would make Big Bird look like Tweety. But within 6,000 years of the glacial maximum, the rapidly warming climate had turned Lake Mungo salty, then parched. A prehistoric paradise was lost.

We know a lot of this, of course, because of the bones.

“There is a 90 percent chance we’ve got a cremated human right beneath us,” my traditional Paakantji Aboriginal guide Graham Clarke shares as we walk through the sands of time back to the start of Australia’s human history. “See that branch over there,” he adds, pointing to a mangled root that’s collecting a mound of rubble. “That’s a marker for the bones of a giant wombat [known as a Diprotodon].”

“Over here we’ve got a fossilized eucalyptus tree,” he continues. “It’s never-ending because things are constantly appearing and disappearing and you can never keep up with it.”

Massive erosion has left the internal anatomy of Lake Mungo, like many of the dry Willandra Lakes scattered about this UNESCO World Heritage area, exposed at the surface. Every year the lake produces a new crop of exposures as the skin-baking Outback air strips the surface with each gust to reveal a veritable time capsule buried underneath.

Tiny bone fragments tumble like confetti in the wind as Clarke and I walk along the sandy lunette that curves around the lake’s eastern shore. We follow a set of arrow-shaped emu tracks to the top of the lunette’s highest dune where Clarke plops down onto all fours and begins to draw.

“I’m going to teach you a different kind of history,” he says, forming circles in the sand. “I want to show you the other side of the coin, because people always grow up seeing one side and never take the time to see the world from a different perspective.”

Clarke mixes science with dreaming as he describes weather patterns, explains his theories of time and makes his standpoint on evolution abundantly clear: “The 'out of Africa' idea is a joke.”

Then he tells me something his mom told him when he was a kid.

“Archeologists created big words to make themselves sound better and smarter than the rest of us. They made up ideas about history and sold them for profit. But my people have been on this land for thousands of years. I’ve got storylines about my history. What I want to know is what are the Europeans’ storylines?”

It was exactly 40 years ago last week that a geologist named Jim Bowler revealed a set of bones at Lake Mungo that would prove something the Aboriginal people say they knew all along: that they’d been on the Australian continent for an inconceivable length of time.

The going theory among scientists before Bowler stumbled upon “Mungo Man” was that Aboriginals had arrived in Australia from Asia around 20,000 years ago. Mungo Man pushed that date back by at least another 20,000 years, while his ritualistic burial proved that a sophisticated culture had emerged on the far side of the Indian Ocean from Africa much earlier than anyone (except the Aboriginals) could ever have imagined.

Further archeological finds at Lake Mungo point to human occupation of the area as far back as 50,000 years ago, making it one of the world’s most important archeological sites for understanding human evolution and prehistory. But just what exactly its bones mean, who should tell their story, and where the region’s most famous resident should rest in peace remain matters of heated debate 40 years after this curious new actor arrived on Australia’s historical stage.

‘We’re Here Now And We’ve Always Been Here

It was February 1974 and Dr. Bowler was waiting at Mungo Station for the rains to stop so he could return to the site where six years earlier he’d found “Mungo Lady,” Mungo Man’s slightly younger female companion whose bones are notable as evidence of the world’s oldest cremation. The then-professor at Australian National University, or ANU, in Canberra got his chance on the 26th, when the late-afternoon sun shined down like a spotlight on a white bulbous tip emerging from the eroding sands.

Bowler scraped away the dirt to find a fully intact jawbone. It was to be the first glimpse of some of the oldest bones ever discovered outside of Africa.

“I immediately rang my colleagues at ANU and they came out two days later to excavate the remains,” Bowler, now in his 80s, recalls as we sit together on a sofa in his Melbourne apartment. “In the process of that excavation, this amazing articulated expression of tremendous ritual emerged. The body had either been anointed, painted in ochre or ochre had been sprinkled on the grave.

“That was an amazing shock,” he continues. “Nobody had ever imagined that a person of this antiquity in Australia would be of such a sophisticated cultural development.”

Mungo Man emerged at a time when the fight for Aboriginal rights had just picked up steam. Activists quickly integrated the findings into their slogans and made T-shirts saying: “We’ve been here for 40,000 years.” This became one of the mantras in the greater land rights movement of the mid 1970s.

“The Aboriginal people were having a bit of a fight with the scientists on one hand, but on the other they said: ‘Look, these scientists are demonstrating what we’ve been saying all the time. We’ve been telling you that we’re here now and we’ve always been here’,” Bowler recalls.

While Mungo Man dramatically changed the way Australians now view their own history, Bolwer laments that “this has not filtered through to most of the white Australian psyche.”

“Our challenge now is to ensure that the reality of his contribution to both science and the traditional people is made quite explicit.”

A Home For Bones

When Bowler began his work in Lake Mungo, there weren’t any Aboriginal people living there; they had all been systematically moved off in the decades prior. Consequently, the bones of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were removed from the area without the knowledge of its traditional owners.

“When news of these finds hit the press with Mungo Man, some of them were understandably upset,” Bowler recalls. “One Aboriginal Elder said to me: 'You did not find Mungo Lady and Mungo Man; they found you.' Which puts the burden back onto me to ensure that their skeletal remains are properly cared for. They have an immense message to deliver. And that message has yet to be delivered.”

Unlike Mungo Lady, Mungo Man was never returned to his traditional homeland. Instead, he remains under lock and key in a box at ANU -- despite the fact that scientists stopped studying him more than a decade ago.

“The bones have been in the care of ANU for 40 years, and 40 years is long enough,” Bowler decries. “The scientific view is that it’s time for those remains to come home to Mungo. And I believe that view is shared almost without reservation by the indigenous people. But ultimately it’s their responsibility.”

Richard Mintern, executive officer of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, says the traditional owners of the region have been working with government agency staff and scientists to develop repatriation plans that will facilitate the return of the ancestral remains in a culturally sensitive way.

“Part of this process has included extensive consultation in the development of a Mungo Centre proposal, which could provide a worthy commemoration to Australia’s oldest human if funding can be secured,” he explains. “Ultimately the decision as to what happens with the ancestral remains rests with the traditional owners, and those discussions are continuing.”

Part of the problem, it seems, is that there’s somewhat of a disagreement among the three Aboriginal tribes who claim ownership of the land: the Mutthi Mutthi, the Ngiyampaa and the Paakantji. Jacki Roberts of the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage says that while discussions and associated planning are well underway, “it’s still early days.”

There was much speculation in the Australian media that the government and Aboriginal Elders would make a big announcement about the repatriation of the bones on the anniversary Wednesday. But the day came and went like any other without so much as a peep.

The Sands Of Time

Clarke and I watch from a viewpoint atop the lunette as the sun carves a path over the Willandra Lakes, blanketing the late-summer sky in a tangerine haze and heralding the start of a new day for the Outback’s curious nocturnal inhabitants.

The kangaroos spring into action first, then the echidnas scuttle away to forage for insects while the flies disappear to their mysterious nighttime homes. It’s really only in this violet hour that one can begin to imagine what wind-ravished Mungo might have looked like 40,000 to 50,000 years ago when Mungo Man and Mungo Lady called it home.

The indigo sky above morphs into an ocean of stars as Clarke swerves to avoid bounding grey kangaroos along the bumpy road back to the Grand Hotel in Mildura 110 kilometers (70 miles) away. The veteran guide of more than two decades hasn’t stopped yapping since we got in the car, so I ask him a question that’s been on my mind all afternoon.

If this is an archeological site, I say, then what’s to stop would-be grave robbers or souvenir-seeking tourists from nabbing the emerging artifacts?

His answer: "Not much."

Clarke explains that visitors are forbidden from stepping off the boardwalks at Mungo unless accompanied by an Aboriginal guide. Yet in this remote pocket of Australia’s arid center, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone around to stop them.

The Paakantji Aboriginal says he recently buried fake artifacts throughout the lunette in an experiment for La Trobe University. Within two weeks, nearly all of the artificial bones had disappeared.

That they'd disappear is actually what he wanted, though he’d prefer that the bones go back into the earth rather than out of it.

Clarke visits this land perhaps more than anyone else, yet he says he doesn’t tell a soul about new “discoveries.” Sometimes he’ll leave a marker, like the one he’d shown me of the Diprotodon, but mostly he just walks on by and lets the bones return to the sand from which they came.

The thought of loosing such treasured data might horrify an archeologist, but Clarke says he prefers to let Mungo’s myriad bones rest in peace. No analysis. No labels. And no 40 years in a box at a university.

How To Visit Lake Mungo

Location: Mungo National Park is best visited via the quaint riverside city of Mildura about 110 kilometers (70 miles) to the south. You can attempt the largely unsealed road on your own with a sturdy vehicle or hire a guide like Graham Clarke from Harry Nanya Tours if you want to set foot on the lunette.

Where to stay: The Park itself has a small campground, but for more comfort, try the historic Grand Hotel in Mildura.

Where to learn more about Aboriginal history: Melbourne Museum recently opened the spectacular First Peoples exhibit, which provides a great introduction of Aboriginal history from Creation to present day.