Ancient Australian goes home
Researchers still hope for access to “Mungo Man” bones
In 1974, in the bone-dry Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Site in Australia, scientists stumbled on a skeleton in the dunes of long-vanished Lake Mungo. Dating revealed “Mungo Man” was up to 42,000 years old, pushing back the first
aboriginal habitation of Australia by tens of
thousands of years. Other fossils evoked a
lush landscape where the first Australians
fished and hunted long-gone creatures such
as a car-sized relative of the wombat.
Now, the celebrated skeleton is going
home. Capping a decadeslong custody
battle, an aboriginal funeral service hearse
with “Mungo1” license plates set off on
15 November from Canberra—where the remains were kept at the Australian National
University (ANU) after their discovery—on
a 700-kilometer drive across the outback to
Willandra Lakes. There, they will be turned
over to three tribes: the Mutthi Mutthi,
Ngiyampaa, and Paakantyi peoples.
The repatriation “is long overdue,” says
Arthur Durband, an anthropologist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who has
scanned ANU’s Willandra collection, which
includes Mungo Man and fragments of another 130 or so individuals. But he hopes
the tribal elders will allow research to continue. “If the remains are reburied, all that
potential information is lost,” Durband says.
The three tribal groups see Mungo Man
and his contemporaries as direct ancestors,
and say that the spirits of those ancestors
can’t rest until they are back “in country.”
ANU agreed many years ago to return the
remains; disputes between the tribal groups
have slowed the repatriation process.
For years, aboriginal elders have had legal
authority over the bones and have tended
to approve research projects. But the paleo-
anthropologist who led the 1974 excavation,
ANU’s Alan Thorne, “kept tight control” over
access to the skeleton and other remains un-
til his death in 2012, Durband says. “Very few
researchers got to work with the remains,”
and little has been published—not even a ba-
sic scientific description of the skeleton.
Unexplored research avenues include laser
ablation of teeth to study strontium isotopes,
which could reveal early migration patterns,
says Michael Westaway of the Australian
Research Centre for Human Evolution at
Griffith University in Brisbane. Westaway
and others also hope to take another shot at
extracting DNA from Mungo Man to study
his relatedness to living aboriginal people. In
2001, Thorne and colleagues claimed to have
recovered DNA, but last year Westaway and
David Lambert, also of Griffith University,
showed that those sequences were modern
contamination. Lambert says his group has
failed to find DNA in the bones, and they
now want to try prizing it from the roots of
Mungo Man’s teeth—a project that the elders
have approved but has not yet started.
Aboriginal elders have not yet decided
whether to bury the remains or store
them in a crypt and give scientists access.
Michael Young, a Paakantyi elder who has
worked closely with Lambert, says he would
like to see research continue. Though some
elders feel Mungo Man must be interred,
Young says, “I don’t think they understand
the whole consequence of burying him.” He
adds that burial is impractical anyway, as
erosion may re-expose the fossils. j
John Pickrell is a science journalist in
By John Pickrell
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The bones of “Mungo Man” and more than 100 other ancient Australians are bound for home in this hearse.
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