Looking back on Mungo

In a recent article, the geologist Jim Bowler gives a retrospective on the 1974 discovery of the “Mungo Man” skeleton in Australia: “Mungo Man is a physical reminder of the need for Indigenous recognition”.

Bowler describes the initial find, and the subsequent work of Alan Thorne and colleagues in excavating and describing the skeleton. He then turns to the politics that followed the specimen’s publication:

The results of his emergence and removal to Canberra were complex. Archaeological sciences celebrated these new contributions to Australia’s antiquity with special emphasis on their cultural significance, the ochre ritual. Physical anthropologists confirmed the earliest Australians were fully modern people.
Reactions from Aboriginal people were mixed. These were times of often passionate debate about land rights. Gough Whitlam’s preliminary Land Rights Act still awaited legislative endorsement. Major problems remained in areas of cultural ownership: who owned Australian history?

Bowler glosses over the worst excesses, both on the part of those who favor and those who have opposed repatriation of skeletal remains. He focuses instead on the ways that a fuller science of prehistory can bring a deeper understanding of Aboriginal peoples:

Already taking his place in the school curriculum as a key focus in Aboriginal history, Mungo Man’s place as messenger stands in firm justification for national recognition. While Aboriginal Australia must speak in its own voice, as a scientist with a sense of humanity already much deepened by Mungo Man’s contribution, I confidently hope that what has been changed in me will be shared in the lives of many others.

After 40 years, it is remarkable how much has changed. The story of ancient Australians has become markedly more interesting and complex.