This episode looks at the return of the remains of Mungo Lady and Mungo man to their ancestral home of Lake Mungo and the narrative of how this occurred. The video looks at the need to make greater connections with the traditional owners of the land to gain a greater understanding of the history and care of this unique area. Viewers will also see how modern research is more empathetic to these issues.

Repatriation as a social justice issue (6:32)

Episode 15 – Repatriation as a social justice issue

Warning – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following video may contain images and voices of deceased persons.

(upbeat music)

Ivan Johnston – Discovery Ranger, Mungo National Park

The local people would love to see Mungo Man return 'cause it was taken away for quite a while now. A lot of the elders was fighting a long time ago to try and get him back.


The removal of Mungo Man and Mungo Woman from Country has caused ongoing grief and distress to the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa and Paakantji peoples. They, like other Aboriginal Nations all over the country, fought and continue to fight for ownership of their cultural heritage and the rights to repatriate the remains of their ancestors.


It was a man by the name of Jim Bowler, a person who studied soil. He was in that area and he came across charred bones. He'd taken them with him back to Canberra and they proved to be human remains. They came out with scientists and archaeologists, he collected all the bones and put it in a suitcase, taken with him back to Canberra, and it proved to be a young lady between 13 and 18 years old.

Dr Jim Bowler – Geologist, University of Melbourne

Scientists came along out here. We intruded into this landscape without there’d not been previous consultation with the Aboriginal people, so, that when the discoveries that I'd made came into the public medium through television and everything, the Aboriginal people, some of them were quite upset.

They're saying, you scientists, you don't understand our culture, you don't understand what you're doing to our history. so, there was a confrontation between ourselves, between rational science and the traditional intuitive relationship with the land that the Aboriginal people have. They're two different connections.

The Aboriginal people have it. Mungo Man, Mungo Lady had it. We came back here and, in their footsteps, we now reconnect with the Aboriginal people and with the landscape which European Australia still has so, much problem in understanding.


For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the return of ancestral remains back to Country is the first step towards recognizing their dignity. It restores their rightful place as elders, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters. It acknowledges the wrong done to them and allows the ancestors finally rest in peace in their homelands. It recognizes the unbreakable bond, customary obligations, and traditional practices between the living, the land, and the dead.


The vegetation here are very important to the Aboriginal people because the eucalyptus leaves, when we go to a special place where we found Mungo Man and Mungo Woman, we've got to smoke our self-going in and going out. And the reason why we do that, we don't want to take our bad spirit with us where the old spirits are, and we don't want to take them back to where we come from.

[Screen reads: Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s members of the local communities led by three remarkable Aboriginal activists – Alice Kelly, Tibby Briar and Alice Bugmy – and encouraged by archaeologist Isabel McBryde, started to question the work of the scientific community.
They fought tirelessly for the right to become involved in the management of archaeological work and for repatriation.]


Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, members of the local communities led by three remarkable Aboriginal activists, Alice Kelly, Tibby Briar, and Alice Bugmy, and encouraged by archaeologist Isabel McBryde, started to question the work of the scientific community. They fought tirelessly for the right to become involved in the management of the archaeological work and for repatriation.

In 1992, the remains of Mungo Lady were finally handed back to the communities and a formal apology was made by the Australian National University. This apology acknowledged that the removal of the remains caused distress and that the research was conducted without the consent of traditional owners.

The hand back ceremony was a turning point in the relationship between scientists and the local tribal groups, and is now an important moment in our nation's shared histories, as it signifies a shift in colonial power relations.


What do you think are the most important elements of ethical research?


Now with the long dialogue with Aboriginal and archaeological colleagues, that unity of sitting down on the same sand dune and learning from each other, that's the dynamic now that is driving present research and present understanding. We are walking across this landscape together in harmony, science and traditional people. That's a tremendous new agenda on the Australian landscape.

[Screen reads: Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to use and control their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains.

  2. States shall seek to enable the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous people concerned.]


The events that surround this moment in time demonstrate how repatriation and the acknowledgement of Aboriginal people's right to ownership of culture can be a vehicle of healing and justice in Australian society. Lake Mungo is now celebrated as a site of reconciliation, a place where the opportunity for genuine two-way learning is being realised.

[Screen reads: Since the production of this video Mungo Man has been returned to Country where he now rests. So how have archaeological research practices changed since the 1960s and 1970s?]

Daniel Rosendahl – Executive Officer, Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area

Research has changed a lot since the 1960s and the 1970s, and a lot of research can be done on Country, a lot of it. so, once upon a time, if you wanted to do residue analysis on stone artifacts, and so, that's looking at stone tools under a microscope to see if you can see any traces of blood or plant material on those stone tools which might give you an idea of how those stone tools were used, I used to have to take that to a laboratory and look under it under a really high powered microscope, a microscope which you couldn't really move off the bench.

Whereas now, you can get portable microscopes that plug straight into your laptop, and you can do those residues in the field, so, you don't have to take stone tools off Country anymore. And even with ancestral remains, when looking at human remains and the Cobb studies that can be done, there's a lot of research which can be done on Country with the ancestral remain still in the ground.

There’re still some techniques where you need to remove samples from Country. For instance, if you want to get some radiocarbon dating of shell material to work out how old it is, or date some sand grains, you have to take that away into a laboratory.

So, you need permission to remove it, and then we also have plans to bring it back. so, what happens when the researchers are finished looking at the shells, or finished looking at the stone tools that they've taken away, and so, you come up with a repatriation plan, so, all of that material will come back to the Willandra Lakes, and come back to Country.

List of sources and acknowledgements

  • Image: Mungo Lady repatriation. Provided by Maggy Bradie

  • Image: Mungo Man archaeological dig site. Provided by Jim Bowler

  • Image: Jim Bowler. Provided by Jim Bowler

  • Image: Suit case. Retrieved from

  • Image: Recreation of Lake Mungo. Provided by Geovanni Caselli

  • Image: Elders on Dune. Provided by Dan Rosendahl

  • Narration. Voice over by Sheri Hennessy, Southern Cross School of Distance Education.


NSW Government Public Schools, Learning Systems, DART connections, Southern Cross School of Education. Virtual Excursions 2017.

[End of transcript]

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