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Mungo Man (?–?)

by Malcolm Allbrook

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Mungo Lady and Mungo Man lived in the region now known as the Willandra Lakes, western New South Wales, around 42,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene era. Scholars have deduced from their skeletal remains all that is known to science about their biographies. Mungo Lady, also known as Mungo Woman or by the scientific identifier ‘Willandra Lakes Hominid 1’ (WLH 1), emerged, in fragments, from an eroding lunette on the downwind side of the now-dry Lake Mungo. She was found in July 1968 by Jim Bowler, a postgraduate student in geology at the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, who was engaged on a geomorphological study of the series of thirteen interconnected former lakes comprising the Willandra, on the traditional lands of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi peoples. In February 1974 Bowler found Mungo Man (WLH 3) nearby. His discoveries caused great excitement within the scientific community and the public sphere, as they demonstrated that Australia’s human history spans tens of thousands of years, not a few thousand as previously believed.

The remains of Mungo Lady, comprising ‘a deposit of burnt carbonate-encrusted bones’ (Bowler et al. 1970, 43), were salvaged in March 1969 by a team of archaeologists and taken to Canberra for investigation. Reconstruction by the paleoanthropologist Alan Thorne identified the remains, which included fragments from each part of the skeleton, as those of ‘a young adult woman of gracile build and small stature’ (Bowler et al. 1970, 56). The manner of her interment suggests a careful funerary process, implying ‘spiritual meaning and abstract thought’ (Mulvaney and Kamminga 1999, 357); her body had been cremated and her bones crushed into fragments before being buried in a shallow conical hole.

The almost complete skeleton of Mungo Man was found about 500 metres east of Mungo Lady’s cremation site. Laid to rest in a supine position with hands together in the lap, the corpse had been sprinkled with red ochre powder suggesting a ceremonial burial. Deposits of the mineral are not found locally, the nearest source being hundreds of kilometres away, and significant energy must have been expended to acquire and transport the material. Although the evidence of gender is inconclusive, the remains have been widely accepted as being those of a man of about fifty, of light build and 170 centimetres tall. Two lower canine teeth appear to have been removed some years before death, possibly in a ritual ceremony, while the outer (buccal) surfaces of his molars were worn in a pattern consistent with the stripping of plant fibre, perhaps in the preparation of fishing nets, baskets, or bags. His teeth did not show the kind of wear expected of a person dependent on ground-seed meal, indicating a diverse diet. The condition of his thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, and his right elbow, show that he suffered from osteoarthritis, in the latter an extreme affliction that he bore for some years before his death. This would have caused chronic pain and restricted the movement of his right arm; certainly, it would have prevented the use of weapons associated with hunting and defence. The injury may have been related to repetitive stress, perhaps from throwing a spear, using a spear-thrower, or other activity such as canoeing, knapping, fighting, or arm wrestling. Alternatively, a chronic inflammatory condition may have been the cause.

The geomorphological history and the numerous archaeological sites of the Willandra Lakes provide context to the limited knowledge of the lives of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man. The region has been described as ‘a late Pleistocene archaeological record of grand proportions’ (Johnston and Clarke 1998, 110), providing ‘one of the best examples of ancient people-land interaction on time scales rarely matched anywhere in the world’ (Bowler 1998, 120). The ancient lakes and their associated lunettes preserve a detailed archive of the human, hydrological, and terrestrial history of the region. For long periods between 50,000 and 15,000 years BP the lakes were full, fed by a river (now known as the Lachlan) enlarged by run-off from the southern highlands, interspersed by periods when they were dry. The earliest record of human presence at Lake Mungo dates from about 50,000 years BP indicating that humans began using the site soon after the lake refilled. Bowler (1998, 150) has called it ‘Australia’s Eden’ for its capacity to illuminate the ancient human history of the region and more broadly the continent.

Mungo Lady and Mungo Man lived during a period when the lakes were full, their interment sites being adjacent to the lake margin, a habitat convenient for the harvesting of aquatic resources. Nearby is evidence of regular, perhaps at times intensive, human occupation, including hearths and ovens, silcrete stone tools, grindstones, and the detritus of cooked meals, including fish, crayfish, waterfowl, freshwater mussels, small mammals, and eggshells. The range of animal remains suggests that they were taken throughout the year rather than seasonally. Thus an image emerges of a Late Pleistocene community of modern humans, of which Mungo Lady and Mungo Man were a part. Moreover, the pattern of fireplaces and camps, and the remains and means of hunting and harvesting, together with the ritual burial of the dead, demonstrates that the ancient humans of the Willandra had a complex social and religious life.

The discovery of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man ignited a period of intensive scientific research, initially focused on the Lake Mungo lunette, later extending to the lunettes and shores of other ancient lakes in the Willandra. Many more cremated or buried skeletons were found; a total of 135 were removed to Canberra for investigation. The dates ascribed to these remains, together with those obtained from hearths and fireplaces, show that the region had been occupied almost continuously from the late Pleistocene into the modern era. Lake Mungo’s scientific value was recognised when it was gazetted a national park by the government of New South Wales in 1979; two years later the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the whole region a World Heritage Area, not only for its scientific value but also for its cultural significance.

It took some years for the interests of Aboriginal traditional owners of the Willandra Lakes to be recognised alongside those of the scientific community. For Aboriginal people throughout Australia, research on Lake Mungo confirmed that their ancestors had occupied the land since time immemorial and lent powerful legitimacy to their claims for land rights. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s a vigorous campaign by members of the Paakantji, Ngyiampaa, and Mutthi Mutthi traditional owners against the removal of ancestral remains highlighted the divisions between government and scientists on the one hand, and Aboriginal people on the other. While the former asserted the universal value of Lake Mungo for science and national identity, the latter sought to protect their cultural heritage. After a period in which scientific research virtually ceased, the parties agreed at a conference held at Lake Mungo in June 1989 to respect each other’s interests and to develop a collaborative approach. As part of this understanding, new finds of the often ceremonially interred human remains have since been left in situ.

In a symbolic act of reconciliation, Mungo Lady was repatriated to the custody of traditional owners in 1992, thereby recognising her personal and familiar connection to her descendants. They value her as a highly respected member of the community who, by reappearing on the Lake Mungo lunette, provided proof of a long-standing Aboriginal occupation of the country, and thus did much to strengthen their identity and sense of belonging and to enlighten a doubting Australian public. The remains of Mungo Man and the other ancient Willandra Lakes people were returned by the ANU to traditional owners in 2015, when Mutthi Mutthi elder Mary Pappin observed: ‘We are so grateful he is going to be coming home. He’s done his job. It is time for him to go home and rest now’ (Burgess 2015). The remains were stored at the National Museum of Australia until 2017 when they were moved to a secret keeping place in the vicinity of Lake Mungo.

Select Bibliography

  • Allbrook, Malcolm, and Ann McGrath. ‘Collaborative Histories of the Willandra Lakes: Deepening Histories and the Deep Past.’ In Long History, Deep Time: Deepening Histories of Place, edited by Anne McGrath and Mary Anne Jebb, 241–52. Canberra: ANU Press, 2015
  • Bowler, J. M. ‘Willandra Lakes Revisited: Environmental Framework for Human Occupation.’ Archaeology in Oceania 33, no. 3 (October 1998): 120–55
  • Bowler, J. M., and A. G. Thorne. ‘Human Remains from Lake Mungo: Discovery and Excavation of Lake Mungo III.’ In The Origin of Australians, edited by R. L. Kirk and A. G. Thorne, 127–38. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1976
  • Bowler, J. M., Rhys Jones, Harry Allen, and A. G. Thorne. ‘Pleistocene Human Remains from Australia: A Living Site and Human Cremation from Lake Mungo, Western New South Wales.’ World Archaeology 2, no. 1 (June 1970): 39–60
  • Bowler, J. M., Harvey Johnston, Jon M. Olley, John R. Prescott, Richard G. Roberts, Wilfred Shawcross, and Nigel A. Spooner. ‘New Ages for Human Occupation and Climatic Change at Lake Mungo, Australia.’ Nature 421 (20 February 2003): 837–40
  • Burgess, Katie. ‘Mungo Man to be Moved to National Museum of Australia’s Repatriation Unit.’ Canberra Times, 6 November 2015
  • Douglas, Kirsty. Pictures of Time Beneath: Science, Heritage and the Uses of the Deep Past. Canberra: CSIRO Publishing, 2010
  • Flood, Josephine. Archaeology of the Dreamtime. Sydney: Collins Publishers Australia, 1983
  • Johnston, Harvey, and Peter Clarke. ‘Willandra Lakes Archaeological Investigations, 1968–98.’ Archaeology in Oceania 33, no. 3 (October 1998): 105–19
  • Mulvaney, D. J., and Johan Kamminga. Prehistory of Australia. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999
  • Smith, Mike. The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013
  • Webb, S. G. The Willandra Lakes Hominids. Canberra: Department of Prehistory, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1989

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Malcolm Allbrook, 'Mungo Man (?–?)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/mungo-man-27704/text35292, accessed 18 June 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Willandra Lakes Hominid 3
Death

New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage