Spirits of ancestors live on at Lake Mungo

A FRIGID wind blew across the dry bed Lake Mungo yesterday, evoking an age some 40,000 years ago when the cremated remains of “Mungo Lady” were interred in the sandy lunette that curves around the lake’s eastern shore.

Australia’s climate was cooling, as it descended into a glacial period that peaked around 20,000 years ago; the lake was full throughout this period and teemed with native fish and waterbirds.

There was easy hunting in the woodlands around the lake and life was good. But within 6000 years of the glacial maximum, a rapidly warming climate turned Lake Mungo salty, then dry, and an Aboriginal paradise was lost.

A small group of descendants of Lake Mungo’s Dreamtime people – members of the Paakintjie (Barkindji), Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa nations – gathered at the visitors’ centre yesterday for a ceremony marking the release of a educational documentary on Lake Mungo, commissioned by the National Museum of Australia.

The documentary describes the discovery and exploration of what has become Australia’s most important archaeological sites – indeed, one of the most important sites in the world – for understanding human evolution and prehistory.

Lake Mungo’s dune system provide a view of human evolution and prehistory extending 50,000 years or more into the past.

During yesterday’s ceremony, University of Melbourne archaeologist Dr Jim Bowler, whose name is interwoven with the recent history of Lake Mungo, paid tribute to his late colleague, Australian National University archaeologist Dr Alan Thorne, who died on May 21.

Dr Thorne’s funeral was held in Canberra a week before yesterday’s ceremony at Lake Mungo.

It was Jim Bowler ho discovered the remains of LM1, better known as “Mungo Lady”, in 1969, whose cremated bones are the world’s oldest evidence for a ritual burial. Five years later, in 1974, Dr Bowler found the bones of the even more ancient individual known as LM3, or “Mungo Man”.

It was Alan Thorne who carefully excavated them and painstakingly reconstructed the skull of “Mungo Lady” from 300-odd smashed fragments.

In the late 1970s, Thorne advanced the idea that two different lineages of modern humans had merged – hybridised – in Australia: a light-boned, thin-skulled “gracile” race from south-eastern China, and the “robust” modern descendants of Homo erectus.

Thorne and his University of Michigan colleague Professor Milford Wolpoff later developed his ideas into the equally controversial “multi-region hypothesis”, which proposed that isolated populations of early humans in Africa, Asia and Europe had evolved into modern humans more or less simultaneously.

Alan Thorne was in the terminal phase of Alzheimer’s disease when European researchers confirmed in 2009 that the descendants of “African Eve” had interbred freely with Neanderthals in Europe; hybridisation was so common that about four per cent of the DNA of modern Europeans came from Neanderthals.

The video launched at yesterday’s ceremony is the most recent in an award-winning educational series called “Australian History Mysteries”, made for Australian schools, which from next year will teach Australian prehistory, including the story of Lake Mungo, as a compulsory subject.

After a “smoking ceremony” involving five young Aboriginal boys, Dr Bowler told the small crowd – including members of a Chaffey Secondary College year 7 class – that the spirits of “Mungo Lady” and “Mungo Man” live on at the lake.

Lake Mungo has defined the career of the veteran archaeologist, who says he feels a deep affinity with its ancient inhabitants.

“They talk to me,” he said. “They ask me two questions: what have you, the European occupants of Australia, done to our land, and what have you done to our people?”

Dr Bowler said his own Irish ancestors had come to Australia as immigrants, and with others of European descent, had had a “tremendous, often devastating effect on the landscape, and on the lives of indigenous people”.

“’Mungo Lady’ and ‘Mungo Man’ stand in testimony to remind us who we are, and what we have done,” he said.

This article appeared in Tuesday's Sunraysia Daily 5/6/2012.

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