‘Mungo Man found him!’ Dr Jim Bowler & his astonishing discovery.

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Helen Praetz Daffey.

Dr Jim Bowler is well known as the scientist who discovered Mungo Lady and Mungo Man, ancient remains buried on the dried-up shores of Lake Mungo in outback New South Wales, subsequently dated at 42,000 years old. Their discovery changed our understanding of how and when Australia was occupied. It also profoundly changed the course of Jim Bowler’s life.

Around 160 people crowded into St Joan of Arc’s church hall in Brighton on 11 July to celebrate NAIDOC week, and to hear Jim Bowler’s talk on Aboriginal Spirituality: learning from Aboriginal people. In this lecture, he reflected on these changes within the context of scholarly findings about Aboriginal culture and spirituality. What follows is a brief summary of his lecture, which was sponsored by the parish social justice group.  

When he first discovered the ancient remains at Lake Mungo in the late 1960s, Jim Bowler did not know a single Aboriginal person. He grew up on a potato farm at Leongatha, and worked on the land for some years after leaving school, land which had been transformed by industrious Irish settlers until it resembled the west coast of Ireland. From the time of colonial settlement, Aboriginal people were dispossessed and killed: their slaughter is now estimated at 20,000 people who died in defence of their own lands. Further, thousands of Aboriginal skeletons were exhumed and sold to museums and collectors here and overseas.

Aboriginal people in Australia far longer than we thought

Early estimates suggested Aboriginal people occupied Australia around 20,000 years ago, a fiction exposed by the discoveries at Lake Mungo. However, in new research published this year after a decade-long investigation at Point Ritchie near Warrnambool, Jim Bowler and colleagues found evidence of human activity dating back 120,000 years. These people were possibly the first humans to walk on this pristine land.

By the middle of last century, the area now known as Lake Mungo had been opened to pastoral settlement, without any presence of Aboriginal survivors. The bone fragments Jim discovered there were scooped up and taken away for analysis by the Australian National University’s anthropologists. Reconstruction of these remains at the ANU established them as those of an ancient but fully modern human female. Jim’s discovery five years later of a skeleton known as Mungo Man led to Lake Mungo, along with the adjacent Willandra Lakes, being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Area.

Scientists followed the normal practice of that time in removing and dating the remains at Lake Mungo. Subsequently, an agreement was struck between traditional owners of the land, the Barkantji, Mutthi Mutthi, and Ngiyampaa people, and the ANU scientists that further research would be conducted collaboratively. Now, local Aboriginal people and descendants of Mungo Lady and Mungo Man are employed in all the activities associated with a national park.

Aboriginal people express their spirituality in their deeply felt connection to country. While they shaped the landscape through their activities, we have transformed it, often degrading the environment. Charles Darwin, who visited Australia and didn’t think much of it, saw Australia as a vast and discomfiting desert, far from being a desirable ‘Princess of the South’. The scientists of the Enlightenment period ignored Aboriginal peoples’ intimate familiarity with and understanding of the land, as well as their stories about its origins, later characterised as ‘Dreaming’. The land was rapidly despoiled as it was ‘developed’, and knowledge of Aboriginal methods of sustainable land management and ecology were lost, ignored, or unknown. 

Growing awareness of Aboriginal culture & spirituality

Recently, things have changed, however, with increased global awareness of climate change and humanity’s impact on the environment. There is a new awareness of the importance of reconciliation for Australia’s future and an increased desire to learn how we came to occupy this land and to acknowledge its original custodians. Children in school learn much more than formerly about the foundations of Australia and our early history.

Pope Francis in his encyclical, Laudato Si’, urges us to protect the environment, and calls environmental vandalism sinful. He writes, ‘for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins’.

These statements link us back to the times of St Francis, who praised Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Stars, Brothers Wind and Air, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Sister Earth our mother. Our modern scientific understanding holds that the world began 13.7 billion years ago with the big bang. Modern humans were active in Australia 120,000 years ago. People lived at Lake Mungo 42,000 years ago. Mungo Man’s burial involved a sophisticated community response, including a mourning ritual of anointing with ochre, which can be likened to a requiem in a cathedral.

We all share a sense of connection to the cosmic reality, to the trees, the animals and the soil, all as alive as we are. We share cosmic connections to land, to nature, and to each other: we are cosmophiles. Acting and feeling as though we are part of nature generates a sense of empathy towards all of nature, rather than utilitarianism.

That theme is echoed by the Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Theilhard de Chardin in his famous book, The Phenomenon of Man. He defined ‘the without’ and ‘the within’ of things, the consciousness which we all share, and our subconscious which shows up in our dreaming at night. We feel and act as part of nature.

Joan Bowler had the final word, reminding us of a comment by a Muthi Muthi elder, Mary Pappin, who said that, ‘Jim did not find Mungo Man but Mungo Man found him!’

Further information

For information about joining a group to travel to Lake Mungo, or to stay in touch with this work, contact Sheila sheilamhowell@gmail.com, or Helen hpraetz@netspace.net.au.

For information and advice about related curriculum initiatives, contact Jenny Bowler 0415 647 799, or jenny_b@culturalinfusion.org.au.

Helen Praetz Daffey is a noted historian, and Convenor of the Social Justice Group Brighton.
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