Across the years, Mungo Lady continues to call

Half a century ago today, the bleached ancient bones of Mungo Lady were discovered. At more than 40,000 years old, she was then the oldest Homo sapiens found outside of Africa. Billy Griffiths reports.

Mungo National Park, where Mungo lady roamed 42,000 years ago.
Mungo National Park, where Mungo lady roamed 42,000 years ago.
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Her body was burnt on a pyre by a fertile lakeshore and buried in a small round hole a few metres from the water’s edge. There she remained for over 40,000 years, as the lake system dried and her descendants moved to other parts of their country. Then the rabbits, goats and farmers arrived, speeding up the natural rate of erosion, disturbing the soils around her.

If Jim Bowler hadn’t spotted her remains in July 1968, all evidence of her life and death would have eroded into the wind within a year. Her fortuitous preservation, and the influence of her discovery on campaigns for Aboriginal rights, leads traditional owners such as Dorothy Lawson to declare that, “she surfaced for a reason”. As Mutthi Mutthi elder Mary Pappin has often told Jim, “You didn’t find Mungo Lady: she found you.”

Jim Bowler first visited the Willandra Lakes region in far western New South Wales in 1967. As a geomorphologist, he was fascinated by this dry place shaped by water. He spent his days travelling across the low ridgelines and nested dunes on his motorbike, studying the formation of the ancient terrain. His hosts at Mungo pastoral station, Albert and Venda Barnes, accommodated his eccentric interest in their sheep paddocks. They had no idea they lived on a fossil lake bed. This was before Jim gave Lake Mungo its name.

On 5 July 1968, during a routine survey of the southern shores of Lake Mungo, “some strange bone fragments” caught Jim’s eye. They were eroding from the crescent-shaped dune known as the Joulni lunette and the surrounding soils told him immediately that they had lain there for tens of thousands of years. The bones had also clearly been burnt. His first thought was that they were the remains of a meal that had been cooked during the last Ice Age, at a time when the lakes were full. Perhaps they belonged to one of the giant extinct marsupials that once roamed this lakeshore? He decided to postpone further study until archaeologists could see the charred bones in context.

It took nearly nine months to draw a group of investigators to the Willandra Lakes region the following March. The archaeologists in the group, Harry Allen, Rhys Jones, Con Key and John Mulvaney, were tantalised by the possible comingling of human artefacts and extinct megafauna.

But the find was far more dramatic than they had imagined. As they investigated the shattered bundle of bones, out dropped a piece of human jaw. In an instant, the scale of Australian history exploded. In Jim Bowler’s words, “We were confronted not only with human activity but by the very presence of humanity itself!”

The archaeologists quickly recorded the cremated burial and collected the loose bone fragments. They then made the decision to remove Mungo Lady. The site was ephemeral: one downpour could sweep away the entire dune surface. They excised the disintegrating calcrete blocks in which the bones were set and packed them in the only vessel available: John Mulvaney’s suitcase. Some of his clothes served as padding. The following day, they took Mungo Lady to Canberra.

At the Australian National University, it took physical anthropologist Alan Thorne over six months to excavate and reconstruct the hundreds of fragile bone fragments contained in the calcrete. They were found to belong to a young adult female of slender build and small stature. The early age estimate of 30,000 years (which was later revised to between 40,000 and 42,000 years) was almost double the oldest dates for occupation in Australia at the time. But it was the fact that she was unequivocally a modern human that created the greatest sensation. It shattered the lingering nineteenth-century assumption that Aboriginal people had evolved from an earlier race of hominids.

The news of Mungo Lady spread quickly around the globe. The bones were, at that time, the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens outside of Africa. The New World had become the Old.

In 1973, on learning of the archaeological activities at Lake Mungo, one of the traditional owners of the region, Mutthi Mutthi elder Alice Kelly, wrote a letter to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) expressing concern. She wanted to know why she hadn’t been consulted about the work that was being undertaken on her land. She was particularly troubled by the removal of Aboriginal bones. Human remains were not scientific evidence, they were relatives, ancestors, spirits. “Please withdraw any further excavation of skeletons,” she wrote. “They are our tribal people.”

Sharon Sullivan, the NPWS’s first archaeologist, received the letter and together with Isabel McBryde made the case for the traditional owners to be consulted and involved in ongoing fieldwork. It was the start of a long campaign by the Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyiampaa peoples to have a voice in decisions about their land and their heritage. Their activism culminated in the repatriation of Mungo Lady in January 1992. The 42,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man, found in 1974, were also returned in November 2017.

Mungo Lady now rests in a locked, decorated safe underground in Mungo National Park. “There are two keys to this lock,” senior ranger Badger Bates announced at the repatriation ceremony in 1992. “One key is held by Aborigines and one key is held by scientists. Only when both keys are turned together will the safe be open.”

Since that powerful moment, a fragile partnership has formed between researchers and traditional owners. There remains some bewilderment about the study of ancient Australia, but there is also a growing accommodation of scientific practices, and many custodians are involved in uncovering the archaeological story of the Willandra Lakes. Since 2009, the Paakantji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyiampaa peoples and the NSW government have been joint managers of Mungo National Park. Together they care for this World Heritage landscape.

While Alice Kelly saw Mungo Lady and Mungo Man as a fundamental part of her own culture and identity, she also invited others to share in their story. She hoped her ancestors’ emergence would help make a better future for her people. “Mungo,” she declared, “is for all Australians, black and white, it can embrace us all in its spirituality and draw us closer to the land.”

Billy Griffiths is a Deakin University historian with interests in Indigenous history, political history, deep history and the history of science, especially archaeology and anthropology. His most recent book is Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc; 2018).
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