Forty years on from the discovery of Mungo Man, what he represents is as pertinent now as ever
by Jim Bowler
“26 February 1974 was a historic day, one destined to change my life and affect the lives of many others. It was the day I encountered the eroding remains of Mungo Man on the shores of a distant and then unnamed lake basin in western New South Wales.
Five years earlier, on those same dry lake shores, I had happened upon the cremated remains of a young woman, now known as Mungo Lady. Her discovery established that fully modern humans had been in Australia for longer than any European expected. But just as significant were the complex ceremonial features of the burial of Mungo Man, which presented one of the dramatic mysteries of ancient human cultural development. His emergence 40 years ago was a special moment, the opening of an entirely new page in Australian history. The circumstances of that encounter help clarify understanding of who we are; they establish an ancient link with this land and our shared past.
In the summer of 1974, in geological pursuit of ice age climatic change, I was using dry lake basins as rain gauge records of past wet-dry climatic oscillations. Heavy rain had interrupted my excursions into what was an eroding wonderland, the large high-rimmed dune or lunette lining the eastern shores of the yet-to-be-named Lake Mungo. I was temporarily “confined to barracks” at Mungo station, the homestead and shearers’ quarters of the late Albert and Venda Barnes.
Eventually the rain stopped, the mud dried and the landscape brightened. Eager to explore surfaces refreshed by cleansing rains I hastened to the site of the earlier Mungo Lady discovery, the Joulni or southern sector of the big lunette, an area rich in items of archaeological and geological interest. While I was following a distinctive soil horizon, one that had already yielded many artefacts, the late afternoon sun highlighted a tiny patch of something white shining through a cover of expansive sand mantle. An immediate examination revealed what was obviously the domal part of a human skull. I brushed away sand to reveal that the jawbone was intact. This was part of an emerging body. Suddenly, and only 400 metres from the site of Mungo Lady, the number of human grave sites on the dunes was doubled” (read more).