The First Nations people of Australia have lived on the continent for a very long time. However, despite a lot of archaeological evidence for thousands of years of occupation, it was not clear just how far back their existence could be dated.
Then, at a dried-up lake in New South Wales, Australia, archaeologists made an amazing discovery. The lake, known as Lake Mungo, has been dry for over 14,000 years.
In 1968, a geologist, known as Jim Bowler, uncovered the remains of a young woman. Dubbed ‘Mungo Lady’, she had been buried in a very strange way. There was evidence that her body had been burnt first. This was only the first of many amazing finds. Since then, more than 130 ancient human remains from the region have been uncovered.
Then, in 1974, Bowler made a second remarkable discovery: this time, it was the remains of a man. Following the pattern set by the first find, he named it ‘Mungo Man’. While Bowler could assume that both Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were First Nations people, it was not clear how long ago they had been buried next to the lake.
To determine how old these skeletons were, Carbon-14 tests were carried out, and it was concluded that they had died around 42,000 years ago. This meant that both the woman and man of Mungo Lake were the oldest human remains in Australia.
Further archaeological work found that Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were not the only people who had lived in the area where they were found. Long ago, when Lake Mungo still held water, the site was an important location for many early humans. Evidence that humans regularly visited Mungo was found all around the former lake's edge. Finds included shellfish remains, fossilised fish, and stone tools. Some of these dated as far back as the last ice age.
In a similar way to the Mungo Lady, Mungo Man had been buried in a strange way. His arms were stretched out straight and were crossed over his body. His body had been covered in red ochre powder before burial. What is curious is that red ochre cannot be found anywhere near the site of Lake Mungo. The people of Mungo Man’s community would have had to bring it from over 200 kilometres away.
The remains of Mungo Man were moved to the Australian National University in Canberra to study him further. After a series of examinations, it was found that he would have stood over 170cm high and was probably around 50 years old when he died.
The discoveries of the Mungo Lady and Man has provided an opportunity for archaeologists to develop a better understanding of human migrations into Australia. Having evidence of human habitation from so long ago is exceedingly rare.
However, for the First Nations people who are alive today, are deeply uncomfortable with having one of their ancestors being taken away from their traditional land. After four decades of campaigning, his remains were finally handed back into the care of the indigenous people in 2015.
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