Australia’s Oldest-Known Human Remains Will Be Reburied in the Outback

The decision comes after a decades-long campaign by Aboriginal groups, but not all stakeholders are pleased with the current plan

Dunes at Lake Mungo
The ancient remains of 108 Aboriginal individuals were exhumed from the Lake Mungo and Willandra Lakes region between 1960 and 1980. Photo via Flickr

The oldest discovered human remains in Australia along with the remains of 106 other ancient Aboriginals will be reburied, according to the BBC. The final decision comes after a four-year long assessment by the federal government, and a decades-long campaign by Aboriginal groups.

Dated to be roughly 42,000 years old, the remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man are the oldest found in Australia. Both were discovered by geologist Jim Bowler on the dry bed of Lake Mungo in west-central New South Wales. Mungo Lady was discovered in 1968 and is the oldest-known evidence of human cremation, according to the Guardian’s Donna Lu. Mungo Man was discovered in 1974. Both bodies are among the earliest examples of ritual burial in the world, reports Cameron Gooley of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mungo Man and Lady were part of a wave of archaeological finds in Lake Mungo and Willandra Lakes, roughly 470 miles west of Sydney. Between 1960 and 1980, 106 other Aboriginal remains were discovered and, like Mungo Man and Lady, removed from their site by researchers from the Australian National University without permission from Indigenous owners, per the Sydney Morning Herald. While Mungo Lady was returned to Country (the term frequently used by Aboriginal peoples to describe the geographic areas to which they’re spiritually connected) in 1991 and Mungo Man was returned in 2017, many of the exhumed remains have yet to be returned and are housed in museums overseas.

In an announcement at Mungo National Park last week, Australia’s Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley spoke on the government’s approval of the reburial. “I have found that while it is important that we are able to document history, it is equally important that we respect the cultural intent of the burial process and the heartfelt views of the descendants," she said. “Forty-two thousand years ago Aboriginal people were living - and thriving - on the edge of what was then a rich lakeside. In the last four decades their remains have been removed, analyzed, stored, and extensively investigated in the interests of western science."

Red gum casket containing the remains of Mungo Man
Mungo Man's remains are currently stored in a casket made from a 5,000-year-old red gum. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Ley describes the decision as being made to “respect the wishes of the Aboriginal advisory group who represent the broader tribal groups.” But some Aboriginal people feel left out of the decision-making process. Michael Young, who helped lead the campaign to repatriate Mungo Man’s remains, tells the Guardian his group, the Barkindji people, were not consulted. The Barkindji are the majority native title holders and have native title claim to 80 percent of the land to be used for reburial.

The remains will be buried in the coming months at 26 anonymous locations in national parks in outback Australia, per the BBC. Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly, a former member of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area Aboriginal Advisory Group, tells the Sydney Morning Herald this decision was contrary to the wishes of former Elders. He says many wanted the remains returned to a keeping place on Country, or a place where the remains could be studied. When the remains were eventually reburied, Kelly says Elders wanted the gravesites to be known so people could pay their respects.

“This dismisses the voice of the Elders past and present,” he says. “This decision undoes all of that hard work and relationship building between Elders and all other stakeholders out at Mungo.”

Per the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s Department of Environment and Heritage says the majority of the individuals they consulted with in their extensive outreach supported the current reburial plans.