Hope for educational centre at Mungo National Park as the world awaits Mungo Man's return to country

Jim Bowler, pictured at Mungo National Park, discovered the remains of Mungo Man in 1974.

Jim Bowler, pictured at Mungo National Park, discovered the remains of Mungo Man in 1974.

JIM Bowler was a spud farmer-turned scientist from Gippsland looking for what he called a "big story" when he ventured out to the shores of the long-dry Lake Mungo in the late 1960s.

A geomorphologist, an expert in the formation and change of landforms, Bowler was researching the way the climate had changed over the millennia and thought the wind-swept lunettes at the shores of Lake Mungo had the potential to uncover major clues.

But even he was stunned by the magnitude of what he found.

The year was 1969 when Dr Bowler found the remains of Mungo Lady -- evidence of the world's oldest known human cremation.

After his find was met with scepticism from some peers, Bowler showed his archaeological colleagues the burnt bones, and they were able to confirm the remains as human after taking them back to Canberra.

"I was working on lakes across the country and I was looking for key lakes that would have enough evidence to tell a big story," Dr Bowler said.

"So it was from aerial photographs, those dry basins out there in western NSW were the ones that attracted my attention." 

They would, not long later, attract the world's attention.

Five years later, at Lake Mungo, Dr Bowler discovered the tip of a cranium embedded in part of the wind-swept lunette.

Again, he called colleagues from Canberra who arrived to uncover the full skeleton of a man buried amid a full ritual of ochre and fire.

The discovery further changed the global understanding of human history, not only for their age, but the manner in which the deceased had been honoured by his kin.

"It was a ceremony that resembles a burial in a great cathedral today with incense and fire and holy oil," Dr Bowler said.

"To think it happened out there 40,000 years ago. That was 36,000 years before the patriarch Abraham. Three main religions today, Judaism, Islam and Christianity all go back to the patriarch of the father Abraham.

"Nowhere in the world was it known at that age that there was such cultural sophistication and the poor old Australian Aborigines had been abused, dispossessed, denigrated as savages with no dignity of understanding their cultural complexity."

Archaeology at Mungo National Park revealed Aboriginal people settled in Australia at least 40,000 years ago -- twice as early as previously thought. Picture: Carmel Zaccone

Archaeology at Mungo National Park revealed Aboriginal people settled in Australia at least 40,000 years ago -- twice as early as previously thought. Picture: Carmel Zaccone

The discoveries provided evidence Aboriginal people had settled inland Australia much earlier than previously thought and led to the Willandra Lakes becoming listed as a world heritage area by UNESCO in 1981.

While Mungo Lady's remains were repatriated in 1992, those of Mungo Man have remained in Canberra until this year.

Efforts to restore the remains to Mungo through negotiations with the three tribal groups that share custodianship of the area -- the Paakantyi, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa -- have been met with frustrating bureaucratic delays.

It's a saga Dr Bowler describes as a "great shame".

"Mungo Man has to have the status of a great patriot, he has contributed to putting Australian history on the world stage and what do we do? He's sitting in Canberra in a cardboard box; he's been sitting there for 43 years," he said.

The age of the remains became clearer to researchers after more studies.

"It went from 30 back to 40,000, so it was expanding a process of understanding, but now 43 years later we have much clearer implications of the world significance of his discovery and its one that sadly the Australian government and the Australian people have yet to acknowledge," he said.

"It's like having the photograph of a man that lived 40,000 years ago. We treasure the photographs of our grandfathers, let alone the photographs of a man from 40,000 years ago.

"We have to ensure now that the next reburial is carried out with equivalent dignity and with the ritual and honour that this man deserves."

Jim Bowler hopes an education centre can be established at Mungo National Park (pictured) so people can go there to learn about the connection between Aboriginal people and country. Picture: Carmel Zaccone.

Jim Bowler hopes an education centre can be established at Mungo National Park (pictured) so people can go there to learn about the connection between Aboriginal people and country. Picture: Carmel Zaccone.

The drawn-out process to return Mungo Man to the land of his original burial concludes this week and Bowler hopes the long awaited repatriation will present an opportunity for the nation to have an even more overdue conversation about "the dark side of Australian history".

"We have to have, as in South Africa, a day of reckoning, a day of learning and a day of exchange, a day of acknowledging what we have done to these people and what we have done to their country," Dr Bowler said.

"There needs to be a healing process where these issues are brought together where we sit down or stand up together with Aboriginal people and bridge these issues across the huge cultural gap that separates us today."

To that end, Dr Bowler wants Mungo National Park to become a place where Australians can go to learn about the innate relationship between land and people.

He wants support for a national centre to be established at the park, which he says is of greater importance to human history than both Uluru and Kakadu.

His hope is for the park to house a virtual education centre that allows students from across the country to undertake a journey to Mungo without leaving their classrooms.

"My days are numbered but my affinity and my attachment to the whole Mungo journey is a very demanding one and it's one I feel I'm now under pressure to expand on in a very comprehensive way," he said.

Originally published in Your Sunraysia magazine; October 2017.

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