'A documentary eight years in the making tells a story 42,000 years old - of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, some of the world’s earliest human remains.
It has been touted as one of the great archaeological finds. In 1968, scientist Jim Bowler noticed some materials had become exposed by erosion at Lake Mungo in south-west New South Wales.
A bit of digging and examining later and Mungo Lady emerged - one of the earliest human remains in the world outside Africa.
Six years later, Bowler returned to, remarkably, unearth Mungo Man in a spot just 450 metres away from Mungo Lady. The burial sites are thought to be 42,000 years old, the oldest yet discovered in Australia.
The discoveries were landmark archaeological moments but public attention then largely drifted from the ancient Pleistocene lakebed in south-western NSW.
For the Aboriginal people of the area, however, the story was far from over, as is documented in a painstaking documentary Message from Mungo, made over eight years and to be screened on Tuesday 18 August.
Lake Mungo’s three tribal groups - Mutthi Mutthi, Paakantji and Ngyiampaa - finally managed to ensure Mungo Lady’s remains were returned to them in 1992. Mungo Man remains in Canberra, adrift from his homeland. What was an archeological triumph for scientists was an emotional, often traumatic, spiritual loss for traditional owners.
“They were taken away from us in an unruly manner without any consultation with any Aboriginal person at all - that’s why people have been up in arms,” says Roy Kennedy, an Ngyiampaa elder. “These are our ancestors. They are part of our people.
“Mungo Man was just thrown into a suitcase and now he’s in a dingy room with remains from around the world. He’d probably blow away like dust.”
Kennedy says the archaeological excavations of the 1960s and 1970s were essentially a free-for-all that has caused a lengthy tension within the Aboriginal community.
“You could just go and do what you want, find some remains and throw them in a case and drive them back in your car,” he says. “If we didn’t put a guard there, you could still help yourself to blackfellas bones, like a smorgasbord.”
Message From Mungo, made by Ronin Films, focuses on the journey of Mungo Lady from her unearthing to historic handback. It’s thought Mungo Lady lived around the shores of the lake, at a time when it was full of water and teeming with life, and collected shellfish, yabbies and emu eggs for her family.
When she died, Mungo Lady was cremated, with the remaining bones crushed, burned again and then buried.
Andrew Pike, director of the documentary, has spent the last decade piecing together the story of what happened in the 40 years after Lady Mungo’s return. He says he was taken aback by the connection that Aboriginal people had to the remains.
“The Aboriginal groups really identify the human remains as being theirs, the people feel they are connected to them,” he says.
“We’ve spoken with archaeologists from overseas who say that is very unique. That connection to remains is not the same in the Middle East or Europe or even in north America with the native American remains. Overseas, that connection to the past is broken, but in Australia it is still there and it’s very strong.”
Pike says his interviews with Aboriginal people about Lady Mungo were often emotional, tearful conversations.
“They talk about her as their queen, their matriarch, their source of power,” he says. “The archaeologists talk about the discovery of human remains but the Aboriginal talk about Mungo Lady coming back, allowing herself to be present again.”
Consultation has improved markedly since Lady Mungo and Mungo Man emerged. Anyone looking to dig in the area has to get through government officialdom and the consent of Aboriginal elders before proceeding.
Still, Pike says that some archaeologists “bridle at having to consult. It’s an ongoing process of adjustment”.
The documentary contains long periods of silence to invoke what Pike saw as an eerie, quiet place, aside from the loud wind that whips off the dunes.
“It’s a place that has a strong physical effect upon you,” he says. “I wanted to let that silence come through. There’s a spiritual dimension to Lake Mungo. I’d say it’s a kind of spooky place, really.”
Kennedy sees it slightly differently.
“Well there’s two lots of people - white people and black people,” he says. “It may affect white people in different ways but for Aboriginal people it was their land, they roamed it for many years.
“This is Aboriginal land. They know where to hunt, to camp, to bury their dead. I read a lot of crap about what is written about Lake Mungo.”
A move to reunite Mungo Man and Mungo Lady was mooted last year, only for the process to be delayed once again. Aboriginal frustration won’t be salved until Mungo Man returns home.
“We are still fighting to get Mungo Man back but doors keep getting closed to us,” Kennedy says. “We’ve taken quite a few trips up and down to Canberra and nothing has changed, we might as well not have gone there. These are our ancestors. We should have access to them.”
Message from Mungo will air on Tuesday 18 August, 8pm AEST on NITV (Ch34 / Ch144) in Australia.