Mungo memories

ALONE IN MY parents' kitchen on a recent visit, I was drawn to the sheets of slides scattered on the table.

I've walked past my father's organised chaos most of my life. Dad was always surrounded by images from his work in the field, as a scientist specialising in climate change. This time it was different. I stopped and lifted one up. I felt I was sneaking a look at a forbidden world. Expecting to see boring sand and soil or aerial shots of geological sites, I was instead confronted with the most amazing series of slides he had ever taken. A window to Australia's ancient past opened – at least 40,000 years stretched between us. I was entranced. These traces of ancient Aboriginal Australia had echoed across the country, causing a revelation over thirty years ago. They had been in my father's collection all this time, yet I'd never seen them.

Captured in sepia-like tones, a human skull lay exposed. A stark white profile, etched on the surface of soft sand, so hauntingly real it took my breath away. As the sequence of slides unfolded and the sand was carefully removed, the extremities of the skeleton revealed themselves, calcified bones still intact. Finally, in a crucifix-shaped excavation, the full skeletal remains of a human being rested, knees slightly bent, hands placed together in the groin. I wondered what Dad must have felt in that moment of discovery.

The following slide showed three people, two of whom I recognised. They were Albert and Venda Barnes, the owners of Mungo Station, a sheep property of eighteen thousand hectares, quietly nestled in a dry south-west corner of New South Wales. Venda wearing her '70s denim dress and Albert in his shirt crisp and white, stood together contemplating this visitor from the dreaming who had unexpectedly been discovered, lying with such dignity in their sand hills. This profound moment would later change their lives and their family's tenure of the land they called home. They would eventually sell the property to the state for a national park.

Mungo Man, as he came to be known, was ritually buried over forty-two thousand years ago in these dunes. Recording this moment – coming face to face with the fossilised remains of someone who had lived in the last ice age – my father wrote, ‘We were confronted, not simply by evidence of human activity but by the very presence of humanity itself.' This evidence of a sophisticated burial, the body having been anointed in ochre, was the oldest ritual burial found in the world. These findings, along with the discovery some five years earlier of an exposed cranium, belonging to a young woman who had been cremated – the oldest known cremation in the world – corroborated the claims made by present-day Aboriginal people that they have occupied this land for an immense period of time. Australian archaeology came into its own. It 
was 1974.


BACK IN THE late 1960s, my father was doing his PhD on climate change, his research taking him to inland closed lake systems, important because they acted as rain gauges – sensitive indicators to major changes in the climate. Mungo was one of these ancient lakes. With a house full of kids in Canberra, Mungo was also a great escape. Dad was at home in the bush, the breadth and depth of isolated places resonated with him. Rough and ready, he played his classical music loud and cooked a good hot curry. When he was home, arguments were hot and volatile too.

As a child, when people asked me, ‘What does your Dad do?' I would rattle off an awkward response: ‘He's a bio-geologist, geomorphologist.' I had no idea what it meant. We use to joke that he could have a better conversation with a rock than he could with any of his kids. He was bound by his fate: these discoveries of such cultural and international significance swept Jim Bowler into other-worldly realms. As a scientist, poised at the threshold of an ancient world, questions and challenges arose daily and the mysteries continued to be unearthed at Lake Mungo – he was lost to us kids. I was eight years old.

There were always bits of stone flint, rocks and fossils scattered around our home when I was growing up, hints of the landscape that had captivated him. As a young girl, I was fascinated by the fossils, holding them longingly, wishing I could be a part of his world. I would take them to school for ‘show and tell', too shy to say much; they would speak for themselves.

As the oldest of the six kids, I was the first to initiate the inevitable challenges to his authority. Reflecting on my teenage years, he recently wrote, ‘Elders were now being called regularly into question. Respect for ancient traditions, prayer, the dignity real or misplaced of church, all became increasingly the object of girlish disrespect.' I had begun my own journey. The battle with my father went on for years.

One of the gifts he gave me was Mungo. We took a rare family trip there when I was fourteen. A typical teenager, I was feeling isolated and yearning for something, I knew not what. The mystery surrounding the sand dunes, caressing the dry, flat lake bed of Mungo, sang a tune to me and captured my spirit. I sensed a deeper dreaming – a truth I knew, but for which I had no container. I fell into a deep silence as we left the Barnes' homestead in our crowded car. I didn't want to leave.

Layers of generations, going back thousands of years, lie embedded in these exposed dunes. They bring home an undeniable truth: we all stand on top of eons of generations. My own family's arrival in Australia began in the early 1900s when my father's father set out from Ireland, crossing the seas to explore frontiers and find opportunities in Australia. After marrying here, he was immediately sent away to war and he returned with part of his soul locked away forever. My father, initially following in his father's footsteps on the potato farm, soon stole away to explore a larger world. Leaving the coastal fringes to explore inland Australia, he discovered Mungo.

Back in July 1968, while on a routine research trip alone on the eerie dunes at Lake Mungo, events followed that would change my father's life. While mapping the ancient beaches often littered with stone artefacts, his attention was brought to a ‘portion of strange bone fragments appearing out of the eroding soil on the lunette'. He later wrote, ‘I found myself walking in the footsteps of people who had lived, loved and died on these same sands many thousands of years ago.' Archaeologists soon arrived and identified these shattered bones as the cranium of a young woman, the first modern human of such antiquity to be found in Australia. Originally called Mungo Lady, she had ritually been cremated some forty-two thousand years before, her skull burnt, crushed and placed in a hole in the ground. These fragments, in danger of being eroded by sheep, were removed, packed in the suitcase of eminent archaeologist Professor John Mulvaney and taken to Canberra. The tribal women from the Willandra country, of which Mungo is a part, called her back home. She was returned in a small ceremony thirty-four years later in 1992, to the traditional owners of her land, who are still awaiting funds – more than fifteen years later, to build a ‘keeping place' for the treasured remains of their ancestors.


WITH MUCH ANTICIPATION, in September 2006 I travelled with family and friends to Mildura, then 110 kilometres down the slippery, corrugated track to Mungo, for the opening of the Mungo Festival. A tapestry of people had arrived from across the country: Aboriginal elders, scientists, pastoralists, international tourists, government representatives, artists, musicians, interested folk, both black and white. The festival was designed to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of World Heritage listing, a recognition of over forty thousand years of human occupation. It was a big call. Although much has been done to return balance to the land and the original occupants of this open-air museum, the icy weather, cultural differences, complicated logistics and not enough ceremony created a wipeout. There we all stood, staring at each other, enclosed in a compound erected for the evening concert, sheltering under domestic marquees not far from the original homestead. Tension divided this day of celebrations. Sad and angry, I wandered off into the salt bush, tears streaming down my face, confused by my depth of feeling about this polished event, now muddied and the opportunity lost. We are yet to find the meeting ground where our cultures can come together. People splintered off into their social groups.

My family, half of us there for the occasion, retreated to a restaurant in Mildura. One of my brothers blew in for the night, driving the four hours from Griffith to see the rest of us. It wasn't long before Dad announced he was going to bed: ‘I have a talk to give in the morning.' I was sitting next to my brother. I saw his muscles tighten, body shaking, he replied, ‘You always have some other bloody thing to do!' They both stood, the fiery son facing the retiring father. My youngest brother ushered them out of the room. Old age has softened our father, so he was able to concede and we all adjourned to the café tables outside.

He delivered his talk the next day – the dean's lecture at La Trobe University in Mildura. He'd come a long way. I was proud and relieved; his science was now palatable – even fascinating. Mungo Man and Woman had lived at a time of great change in the climate. The earth was heading into the depths of an ice age, the land becoming colder and drier. People began settling closer to the lakes where they could find staple food supplies, fish and mussels. The fossilised remains of these meals have been found around the camp-fires still visible at Mungo. We heard his personal story in this land of discovery: the study of climatic history, human evidence in the landscape, the story of ancient Australia.

Not long after returning to Melbourne, he found a box of postcards from his father to his mother. Love letters full of longing, written in France on the Somme in 1916. It was a moment of deep reflection, what went unspoken between his father and himself a poignant reminder of the ‘large gaps between fathers, sons and daughters'. Late is better than never, and he invited us to spend more time with him.

Mungo also does this to people: it exposes the painful chasms and invites communion; the spirit is palpable. Even hardened politicians are touched. At the ‘Living Together' conversation held in Mildura, former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer said of Mungo: ‘It's cleansing, the static and acid of modern day living drop away. Being able to be uplifted in a meditative manner in all the forces I don't necessarily understand, come together on the lunette of Lake Mungo.' The eastern lunette known as The Walls of China is formed and changed by the westerly winds blowing, exposing the secrets of antiquity. In other parts of Australia the spirits may indeed have left the land, the grief and loss overwhelming; Mungo defies this and shines like a beacon for many people.

The Mungo Festival ran from September and continued into the new year, bringing together many diverse people and events. In April 2007, a conference on human origins attracted international scientists from Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, to synthesise evidence of early human occupation. Later in the year, the Hands Across the Desert project united Aboriginal communities from the Western Desert with those at Mungo, and they shared knowledge on cultural tourism and development. Then a youth festival involved hundreds of students from local schools. Research of international significance continues under the joint management of the Three Traditional Tribal Groups (3TTGs) and New South Wales National Parks, with many Aboriginal rangers being trained in the scientific methods of observing and documenting found artefacts.


SCIENCE HAS OPENED a doorway and the ancient remains tell a story – of a culture which has survived at least 1,680 generations.

Mungo is a sacred place. When you visit, your perception of reality expands. You can literally walk in the footsteps of ancient people, feel and sense the potent legacy of our Indigenous communities. Hopefully a ‘keeping place' will soon be funded and due respect given to the ancestral remains of Mungo Woman and Mungo Man. Their story and journey, from ancient Australia to the present, is as dynamic as and more real than any creation myth. Local park ranger Gary Pappin, a descendant of the Mutthi Mutthi tribe, said traditional elders believe Mungo Woman has returned to connect people to their history, to unite warring tribes and educate more recent arrivals. The bones of Noel Pearson's quest for a ‘radical centre' may lie here. This crucible offers a place where all Australians can learn, listen and share a common humanity.

My daughter's multicultural school recently prepared for a concert with an Australian history theme. Her teacher explained that her class would perform Click Go the Shears and the first-grade girls would need big skirts. ‘We'll be going right back to Captain Cook,' the teacher said. I asked ‘What about before that?' After a moment's silence, the teacher replied with a rather confused, ‘No'. Not long before my daughter had asked her grandfather for a fossil to take to school for ‘show and tell'. He didn't have any. It's a shame: artefacts from ancient Aboriginal Australia might put recent history in perspective.

Dad's days of collecting artefacts are over. At seventy-eight, he periodically travels across the Tanami Desert to spend time sharing his knowledge of the land with the remote community of Mulan in Western Australia, in the hope that they too can bridge the traditional stories with the science of their unique environment – on the edge of a freshwater lake in a desert – to develop tourism, much like Mungo. In the moments that remain between trips, projects and trying to capture his life's work on paper, he fits in time for family, to build shaky bridges while we can. I've come to terms with the painful realisation that his extraordinary spirit is not found in these moments. It's out there, exploring the rhythms of the land and listening to the echoes of an ancient culture and this haunting, ancient terrain has also become a part of me. It sits deep inside, a reminder that there are mysteries and layers yet to be fathomed, including my relationship to the spirit of my father, and to the passion that led him into a world beyond science and his personal history to contact with the first Australians.

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