Category Archives: AUSTRALIA

Chocolate uncovered by National Library 120 years past expiry date still almost good enough to eat

Chocolate uncovered by National Library 120 years past expiry date still almost good enough to eat

One of the world’s oldest boxes of chocolates, dating back 120 years to the Boer War, was discovered by conservators at the National Library of Australia. At the bottom of a box of personal papers from the estate of Australian bush poet Andrew Barton “Banjo” Paterson, the souvenir chocolate tin was discovered.

Remarkably, after more than a century, the chocolates were not only unmolested but still seemed almost good enough to eat. There were also traces of old straw packing and silver foil wrapping on the chocolate bar, marked into six fingers.

The discovery astonished staff in the Library’s conservation lab, who weren’t expecting to find Banjo’s sweets hidden amongst a career’s worth of poetry, diaries, and newspaper clippings.

Buckingham Palace commissioned the chocolates out of Queen Victoria’s private purse.

“There was quite an interesting smell when they were unwrapped,” National Library of Australia (NLA) conservator Jennifer Todd said.

“[It was] an old tin of chocolates, belonging to Banjo, with the chocolates still wrapped in the box.”

Chocolate uncovered by National Library 120 years past expiry date still almost good enough to eat
The century-old Cadbury logo is still pressed into the chocolate.

Chocolates fit for a Queen

There was no explanation provided about why Banjo Paterson had the chocolates, or — critically — why he hadn’t eaten them. But a little research unearthed some answers about the tin. It was commissioned by none other than Queen Victoria herself, to provide comfort to Boer War troops at the turn of a new century.

The tin was adorned with the royal visage, inscribed with the phrases “South Africa, 1900” and “I wish you a happy New Year, Victoria RI.”

And although intended for troops, the commemorative chocolate tins became hot items of trade at the front, as Canadian soldier Private C Jackson wrote home in December 1899.

“I have just received a box of chocolate, Her Majesty’s present to the South African soldiers … there is such a demand for them by the officers and everybody else, as mementos,” he wrote.

“In fact, I have been offered five pounds for mine, and at the Cape, as much as 10 pounds is being paid.” Banjo Paterson had shipped out to South Africa in October 1899, as a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, returning to Australia nearly a year later.

It’s speculated Paterson bought the chocolate tin from serving troops and, like many of the soldiers, sent it home to preserve it from the South African heat.

Chocolate company was at loggerheads with Queen Victoria

There is another twist to the tale of Banjo Paterson’s chocolates — they were particularly controversial. Cadbury UK told the ABC the initial 1899 request from Buckingham Palace was for “70,000 to 80,000-pound tins of cocoa … to be paid for out of [Queen Victoria’s] private purse” for the troops in South Africa.

The chocolates were found among possessions of Banjo Paterson.

According to an internal memo from Cadbury Brothers, “the cocoa must be made into a paste and sweetened ready for use under the rough and ready conditions of camp life — the tins to be specially made and decorated.”

But the owners of Cadbury were pacifists, and initially wanted nothing to do with supplying their products to the Boer war. The order was subsequently amended from tins of cocoa to chocolate blocks — and Cadbury at first refused to stamp its name on either the tin or the chocolate inside.

Ultimately the Palace won the diplomatic tug-of-war with Cadbury, as the Queen insisted that her troops know it was “good quality” British chocolate. Good enough, it seems, to last more than a century with only minor decay.

Crowdfunded conservation

The chocolate tin — and newspaper clippings from Banjo Paterson’s time as a war correspondent — were held by the author himself until his death in 1941, then passed down through generations of his family before being acquired by the NLA last year. Now the Library has embarked on the ambitious task of conserving and digitizing the collection to share with the world.

And, befitting “The Banjo’s” popular appeal, financing for the project had come through crowdfunding. NLA Director-General Marie-Louise Ayres said the library easily raised the $150,000 to catalogue and preserve the collection.

“Every year we ask every member of the public if they’d like to contribute to a project,” Dr. Ayres said.

“The Banjo Paterson papers is such an iconic collection we were sure that when we went out to the public and asked them for help they’d give it — and they did.”

Other treasures being conserved from the Banjo Paterson collection include an early version of “Waltzing Matilda” and a large silver gelatin portrait later reproduced on the Australian $10 note.

Unfortunately, the photograph had suffered tearing and water damage hanging in the family home — and was certainly in worse shape than Banjo’s chocolates. The Banjo Paterson collection will be available for viewing online once the project is completed.

For now, though, the chocolates will stay at the National Library of Australia, stored securely in a cool, dry place.

A 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site Was Just Deliberately Destroyed in Australia

A 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site Was Just Deliberately Destroyed in Australia

The mining company was permitted to blow Juukan Gorge Cave, which provided traditional owners with a 4000-year old genetic link. An extension of an iron ore mine destroyed a sacred site in Western Australia which has been continuously inhabited for 46,000 years and provides a 4,000-year-old genetic link to traditional owners today.

One of the oldest in the western Pilbara region, the cave-in Juukan Gorge in the Hammersley Ranges, about 60km from Mt Tom Price, is the only inland site in Australia to display evidence of sustained human occupancy since the last Ice Age. It, along with another sacred site, was blasted.

Under WA’s obsolete Aboriginal heritage rules, which were drafted in 1972 to benefit mining supporters, mining firm Rio Tinto obtained ministerial permission to destroy or damage the site in 2013.

A 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site Was Just Deliberately Destroyed in Australia
This cave in the Juukan Gorge, dubbed Juukan 2, was destroyed in a mining blast on Sunday. Consent was given through outdated Aboriginal heritage laws drafted in 1972. Photograph: The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation.

One year after consent was granted, an archaeological dig intended to salvage whatever could be saved discovered the site was more than twice as old as previously thought and rich in artefacts, including sacred objects.

Most precious was a 4,000-year-old length of plaited human hair, woven together from strands from the heads of several different people, which DNA testing revealed were the direct ancestors of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners living today.

But the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act does not allow for a consent to be renegotiated on the basis of new information. So despite regular meetings with Rio Tinto, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation were unable to stop the blast from going ahead.

“It’s one of the most sacred sites in the Pilbara region … we wanted to have that area protected,” PKKP director Burchell Hayes told Guardian Australia.

Burchell Hayes says his people are devastated the lessons from the site can never be passed onto future generations.

“It is precious to have something like that plaited hair, found on our country, and then have further testing link it back to the Kurrama people. It’s something to be proud of, but it’s also sad. Its resting place for 4,000 years is no longer there.”

Hayes said the site had been used as a campsite by Kurrama moving through the area, including in the memory of some elders.

“We want to do the same, we want to show the next generation,” he said. “Now, if this site has been destroyed, then we can tell them stories but we can’t show them photographs or take them out there to stand at the rock shelter and say: this is where your ancestors lived, starting 46,000 years ago.”

Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act has been up for review, in some form, since 2012. Draft legislation put forward by the former Liberal government in 2014 was rejected after even a National party MP argued it was unfair to traditional owners and did not allow for adequate consultation.

Rewriting the act was listed as a priority for Labor before their election win in 2017, and last month WA’s Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt pushed back the final consultation on his draft bill until later this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new legislation will provide options to appeal or amend agreements to allow for the destruction of heritage sites, Wyatt said. He wasn’t aware of the risk to the Juukan site, or its destruction.

“It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and proponents to include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent,” he said. “The legislation will also provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with the agreement.”

In its submission to the legislative review, Rio Tinto said it was broadly supportive of the proposed reform but that consent orders granted under the current system should be carried over, and that rights of appeal should be fixed, not broad or subject to extensions, lest it “prolong approvals or appeals processes at a critical point in the project.”

A spokesman from Rio Tinto said the company had a relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people dating back three decades, “and we have been working together in relation to the Juukan area over the past 17 years”.

“Rio Tinto has worked constructively together with the PKKP People on a range of heritage matters and has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group,” the company said.

The mining company signed a native title agreement with the traditional owners in 2011, four years before their native title claim received formal assent by the federal court. They facilitated the salvage dig in 2014, which uncovered the true age of the site.

Archaeologist Dr Michael Slack, who led that dig, said it was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. An earlier 1-metre test dig, conducted in 2008, dated the site at about 20,000 years old, but the salvage expedition uncovered a “very significant site” with more than 7,000 artefacts collected, including grid stones that were 40,000 years old, thousands of bones from middens which showed changes in fauna as the climate changed, and sacred objects.

The flat floor of the cave allowed for a significant depth of soil and sand to build up, creating a layer almost two metres deep in parts. Most archaeological digs in the Pilbara hit the rock at 30cm.

Indigenous rock art in the Spear Valley region shows a turtle carved into a rock.

Most significantly, the archaeological records did not disappear during the last Ice Age. Most inland archaeological sites in Australia show that people moved away during the Ice Age between 23,000 and 19,000 years ago, as the country dried up and water sources dried up. Archaeological evidence from Juukan Gorge suggests it was occupied throughout.

“It was the sort of site you do not get very often, you could have worked there for years,” he said. “How significantly does something have to be, to be valued by wider society?” he said.

Baby lyuba, the worlds most complete and Best-Preserved Woolly Mammoth

Baby lyuba, the worlds most complete and Best-Preserved Woolly Mammoth

She is 42,000 years old and has come a long way for her Australian debut. First, she was recovered from the frozen mud in Siberia that was her tomb for so long. Then she was packed into a crate at a tiny museum in Russia and flown to a humidity-controlled cube at the Australian Museum.

Mammoths – Giants of the ice age

The ice age world of woolly mammoths will be brought to life in Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age, exclusive to the Australian Museum from 17 November 2017.

Baby Lyuba, the world’s most complete and best-preserved woolly mammoth, has arrived in Sydney. She is in remarkable condition, with her skin and internal organs intact. Scientists even found her mother’s milk in her belly.

The 42,000-year-old baby woolly mammoth was unveiled on Friday at the Sydney Museum

We will finally be able to see her when she is unveiled as the centrepiece of the museum’s Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age exhibition.

Lyuba, who died at 35 days, is one of Russia’s national treasures, and the government is reluctant to let her out of its sight too often. This is only the fifth time Shemanovsky Museum has let her out, and it’s her first trip to the southern hemisphere.

The mammoth was first spotted in 2007 by Yuri Khudi, a Siberian reindeer herder, who found her as the frost thawed on a muddy bank of the Yuribey River. When he brought a team of scientists back to recover her, she was gone; someone else had got there first.

The 42,000-year old carcass was discovered by a reindeer herder

The team tracked her to a village deep within Siberia’s frozen wasteland. She was propped up on the door of a shop. The shop keeper had reportedly bought her for two snowmobiles and a year’s worth of food from Mr Khudi’s cousin.

“And while she was propped up, a dog came up and chewed off her tail and her ear. If only for that she’d be completely intact,” says Trevor Ahearn​, the Australian Museum’s creative producer.

Lyuba (Lay-oo-bah) means love in Russian. The museum has chosen to surround her with models of huge, ferocious adult mammoths, much as the herd would have surrounded and protected her in life.

It is thought her feet had become stuck in a muddy hole on the side of a Siberian riverbank. Before her mother could yank her out, Lyuba slipped below the surface, where the mud choked her mouth and trunk.

But the mud that killed her also contained sediments and bacteria that created an acid barrier around her body, in effect pickling her. When the river froze over, she was left perfectly preserved.

Had she lived a full mammoth life – 60 years – Lyuba would have grown to more than three metres in height and about five tonnes. To sustain that bodyweight she would have consumed up to 180 kilograms of grass and 80 litres of water a day. Mammoths lived in the late Paleolithic period, which stretched from about 200,000 BC, the time Homo sapiens first emerged in Africa, to 10,000 BC.

Mammoths were uniquely adapted for the conditions, with small ears and thick, woolly fur. They ate grass and bark and roamed across Europe, North America and Siberia.

That makes Lyuba the first of her kind to visit our shores, and it took the Australian Museum a fair bit of what director Kim McKay terms “cultural diplomacy” to get her over here. Negotiations involved the Shemanovsky Museum and the Russian government.

Mr Ahearn says: “One of the first things we had to do before we brought Lyuba over here was absolutely guarantee our Russian colleagues that there was no possibility of her getting seized because there is some controversy over who owns her.

“She’s a little controversial in Russia, with her association with an oil company that helped bring her into the museum. I think it’s paranoia. Russia is feeling a little bit of pressure, so I don’t know if it’s founded. There are lots of myths; it’s all very hazy.”

The prospect of mammoth cloning

Scientists have two competing theories on why mammoths became extinct about 10,000 years ago. Both have important things to tell us about the modern environment – and perhaps contain a message about why we shouldn’t be trying to bring mammoths back.

The first theory is climate change. The ending of the ice age about 10,000 BC may have dramatically reduced the area in which these cold-environment animals could survive.

The second theory is over-hunting. Mammoths, with their tonnes of fat, would have represented an incredibly valuable food source for early humans, who developed sharp spears to hunt them. Scientists think it is possible the mammoth is the first species humanity managed to push into extinction.

Mammoth cloning has always excited the popular imagination, and the exhibition dedicates a section to the possibilities. So far, we have sequenced about 70 per cent of mammoth DNA, so the raw material is not there yet. But even if we could, we shouldn’t, says David Alquezar​, manager of the Australian Museum’s genetics lab.

“The money to do that could be better invested in species that are endangered right now, rather than focusing our efforts on a species that has been extinct for 10,000 years,” says Dr Alquezar.

7,000 years old Australian Aboriginal Sites Discovered Underwater

7,000 years old Australian Aboriginal Sites Discovered Underwater

According to a report released July 1 , 2020, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Jonathan Benjamin of Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and colleagues, ancient submerged Aboriginal archaeological sites await underwater rediscovery off the coast of Australia.

Sea levels were about 80 metres lower than today when humans first settled in Australia as early as 65,000 years ago. As the global atmosphere cooled, sea levels fluctuated but continued to fall.

As the world plunged into the last ice age, which peaked around 20,000 years ago, sea levels dropped to 130 metres lower than they are now.

Between 18,000 and 8,000 years ago the world warmed up. Melting ice sheets caused sea levels to rise. Tasmania was cut off from the mainland around 11,000 years ago. New Guinea separated from Australia around 8,000 years ago.

The sea-level rise flooded 2.12 million square kilometres of land on the continental shelf surrounding Australia. Thousands of generations of people would have lived out their lives on these landscapes now underwater.

In this study, Benjamin and colleagues report the results of several field campaigns between 2017-2019 during which they applied a series of techniques for locating and investigating submerged archaeological sites, including aerial and underwater remote sensing technologies as well as a direct investigation by divers.

Site location in northwest Australia, left, and the Dampier Archipelago, right.

They investigated two sites off the Murujuga coastline of northwest Australia.

In Cape Bruguieres Channel, divers identified 269 artefacts dating to at least 7,000 years old, and a single artefact was identified in a freshwater spring in Flying Foam Passage, dated to at least 8,500 years old. These are the first confirmed underwater archaeological sites found on Australia’s continental shelf.

A selection of stone artefacts found on the seabed.
A stone tool associated with a freshwater spring, now 14m underwater.

These findings demonstrate the utility of these exploratory techniques for locating submerged archaeological sites.

The authors hope that these techniques can be expanded upon in the future for systematic recovery and investigation of ancient Aboriginal cultural artefacts.

They further urge that future exploration will rely not only on careful and safe scientific procedures but also on legislation to protect and manage Aboriginal cultural heritage along the Australian coastline.

Benjamin says, “Managing, investigating and understanding the archaeology of the Australian continental shelf in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners and custodians is one of the last frontiers in Australian archaeology.” He adds, “Our results represent the first step in a journey of discovery to explore the potential of archaeology on the continental shelves which can fill a major gap in the human history of the continent.”

Hundreds of Rock Art Images Documented in Australia

Hundreds of Rock Art Images Documented in Australia

Cosmos Magazine reports that 572 Maliwawa Figures have been documented for the first time at 87 different rock art sites in northern Australia’s Arnhem Land. Paul Taçon of Griffith University said the red figures, drawn between 6,000 and 9,400 years ago, depict humans and animals living in relationships and engaging in different activities.

Hundreds of Rock Art Images Documented in Australia
Maliwawa macropod over 3MFC hand stencil, Namunidjbuk.

The researchers suggest they are a missing link between early-style Dynamic Figures, 12,000 years in age, and X-ray figures made in the past 4,000 years. 

The images were created in various shades of red, with stroke-infill or outline forms and a few red strokes as infill. Some are more than 50-centimeters high.

Large male Maliwawa human figures from an Awunbarna site.

The scenes depict humans and macropods, including three bilbies and a dugong, and lead researcher Paul Taçon, from Australia’s Griffith University, suggests the presence of various forms of headdresses shows they are not just simple depictions of everyday life.

“Maliwawas are depicted as solitary figures and as part of group scenes showing various activities and some may have a ceremonial context,” he says.

“Human figures are frequently depicted with animals, especially macropods, and these animal-human relationships appear to be central to the artists’ message.

“Indeed, animals are much more common than in the Dynamic Figure style rock art in terms of percentage of subject matter, as 89% of Dynamic Figures are human, whereas only about 42% of Maliwawa Figures are human.”

Griffith colleague and co-author Sally May says the discovery of bilby images at an Awunbarna site was surprising as Arnhem Land historically has not been within their range. 

The solitary dugong painting, which is the oldest known image, also appears out of place. “It indicates a Maliwawa artist visited the coast, but the lack of other saltwater fauna may suggest this was not a frequent occurrence,” May says.

However, the intrigue of the paintings goes beyond what they depict, with researchers curious about the artists and the techniques they used.  

“The Maliwawa back-to-back figures are the oldest known for western Arnhem Land and it appears this painting convention began with the Maliwawa style. It continues to the present with bark paintings and paintings on paper,” Taçon says.

As for the people behind the paintings, Taçon says they cannot rule out the possibility that a small group of artists produced Maliwawa rock paintings.

There is also the possibility that only a couple of artists made the paintings with one responsible for the outline forms, the other creating the fuller stroke-line infill examples. 

Mining exec steps down after company destroys ancient Australian sacred sites

Mining exec steps down after company destroys ancient Australian sacred sites

The chief executive of Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest mining company, will step down after a shareholder revolt over the company’s willful destruction of prehistoric rock shelters sacred to two Australian Indigenous groups. 

Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques.

“Significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability for the failings identified,” Rio Tinto said in a statement.

By mutual agreement, Jacques will step down once a replacement has been appointed or on March 31, whichever happens, sooner, the statement said.

Executives Chris Salisbury and Simone Niven will leave the company on Dec. 31.

Rio Tinto announced last month that Jacques would lose $3.5 million in bonuses and Salisbury and Niven around $700,000 each over the destruction in May of two rock-shelters in Juukan George in Western Australia state that had been inhabited for 46,000 years.

Rio Tinto concluded in an internal review last month that there was “no single root cause or error that directly resulted in the destruction of the rock shelters.”

But internal documents revealed last week that Rio Tinto had engaged a law firm in case the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, applied for a court injunction to save the rock shelters

The Western Australian government has promised to update Indigenous heritage laws that allowed Rio Tinto to legally destroy the sacred sites.

Jamie Lowe, chief executive of the National Native Title Council, which represents Australia’s traditional owners of the land, said he had called on Rio Tinto to take more action than cutting executive bonuses.

Lowe welcomed the decision to replace the three executives.

“There needs to be a consistent theme of them showing that they are conscious of Aboriginal cultural heritage and its protection,” Lowe said of mining companies.

The rock shelters’ traditional owners had no comment to make on the Rio Tinto leadership changes, Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corp. said.

“We will continue to work with Rio Tinto in the aftermath of the Juukan Gorge disaster. Our focus continues to rest heavily on preserving the Aboriginal heritage and advocating for wide-ranging changes to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again,” the corporation said in a statement.

“We cannot and will not allow this type of devastation to occur ever again,” the statement added.

oldest evidence of life on land found in 3.48 billion-year-old Australian rocks

Oldest evidence of life on land found in 3.48 billion-year-old Australian rocks

Whether you are looking at an actual fossil or crinkles in the rock itself can be hard to tell in the search for the earliest life on earth. The discovery of 3.5 billion – year – old fossils in the Australian desert in the 1980s has long shadowed these doubts Now, scientists think they ended up putting the matter to bed

The Dresser formation in the Pilbara Craton contains evidence of ancient hot spring activity.

In ancient fossilized microbe formations called stromatolites, found in the Dresser Formation fossil site of the Pilbara region, researchers have finally detected traces of organic matter.

“This is an exciting discovery – for the first time, we’re able to show the world that these stromatolites are definitive evidence for the earliest life on Earth,” said geologist Raphael Baumgartner of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia.

You may remember the time scientists claimed to have found 3.7 billion-year-old fossils in Greenland. Later research determined that these fossils were just plain old rocks, and the crown was returned to the Pilbara fossils.

But, although everyone was pretty sure the Pilbara fossils were the real deal, it hadn’t actually been conclusively proven. They had the shape and structure of microbial stromatolites, but no evidence of organic matter to back it up.

There’s more riding on this than a tiara and a sash reading “Oldest fossils.” It’s deeply relevant to one of the fundamental questions about our very existence: When and how did life develop on this sloshy blue marble?

So, Baumgartner and his team went digging. Not literally, though; they analyzed previously drilled core samples from deep underground, below where the rocks could have been affected by the weather. This means these samples were much better preserved than those from the surface; in their paper, the team said the preservation was “exceptional”.

Spherical bubbles preserved in 3.48 billion-year-old rocks in the Dresser Formation in the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia provide evidence for early life having lived in ancient hot springs on land.
Microbial evidence from Dresser formation hot spring

The researchers analyzed the samples in thin slices using multiple techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and scanning transmission electron microscopy; energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy, and Raman spectroscopy; nano-scale secondary ion mass spectrometry; and stable carbon isotope analysis. 

If that seems like overkill, well, it’s not really. If one of those lines of inquiry showed a positive result and the rest didn’t, it would mean much shakier ground for drawing a conclusion. But things looked good across the board.

The team’s analyses revealed that the stromatolites are predominantly made up of a mineral called pyrite, riddled with nanoscopic pores. And in the pyrite are inclusions of nitrogen-bearing organic material, as well as strands and filaments of organic matter that closely resemble the remnants of biofilms formed by microbe colonies.

“The organic matter that we found preserved within pyrite of the stromatolites is exciting – we’re looking at exceptionally preserved coherent filaments and strands that are typically remains of microbial biofilms,” Baumgartner said.

“I was pretty surprised – we never expected to find this level of evidence before I started this project.”

Previously, a different team of UNSW researchers found evidence of 3.48 billion-year-old microbes in hot spring deposits in the Pilbara.

An Australian Geographic segment on Karijini National Park.
Two hikers gaze at the rock formations in Dales Gorge at Karijini National Park in Pilbara, western Australia.

Because those deposits are about the same age as the crust of Mars, it’s thought that they could tell us how to find potential fossils on Mars – especially since there’s evidence the Red Planet once had hot springs too.

Indeed, NASA has been investigating the Pilbara to try to learn the possible geological signatures that could indicate the presence of stromatolites.

“Understanding where life could have emerged is really important in order to understand our ancestry,” Baumgartner said. “And from there, it could help us understand where else life could have occurred – for example, where it was kick-started on other planets.”

42,000 years old Mungo Man skeleton, the oldest human remains found in Australia

42,000 years old Mungo Man skeleton, the oldest human remains found in Australia

First, a skull, then a torso and eventually an entire skeleton emerged from the sands of south-west New South Wales. When the bones of Australia’s oldest and most complete humans were unearthed in the 1970s it rewrote history.

An Environment Ministry photograph of an ancient human footprint in the Mungo National Park.

Dubbed Mungo Man after the dried-up lake basin where he was found, the skeleton dates back about 42,000 years. But his removal from his burial site to a Canberra university 43 years ago caused his traditional owners great angst.

He’s now been returned to his country, but there’s a fresh dilemma to be resolved: Should Mungo Man be interred forever or should his remains still be accessible to science?

It’s a fraught question which goes to the heart of who owns the rights to access Mungo Man’s history, traditional owners of the Willandra Lakes World heritage region — the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngyiampaa, and Paakantyi/Barkandji peoples — will meet to begin discussions on his ultimate resting place.

Geologist Jim Bowler found Mungo Man in the sands of the Willandra Lakes Region in 1974.

“My preferred option is to bury him and put a nice plaque on him, rather than have him lying in a box waiting for someone to come and poke him again,” Ngyiampaa elder Roy Kennedy said, adding researchers “have had him long enough”.

But many scientists fear burying Mungo Man will close off any chance of future research. Future techniques may become available that will tell us so much more about the story of Mungo Man,” said Dr. Jim Bowler, the geologist who found the skeleton.

“The prospect of possible future access must be resolved.”

Finding Mungo Man

Dr. Bowler stumbled across Mungo Man in 1974 while researching the semi-arid landscapes of south-west New South Wales. The wide scrubby basins fringed by sand dunes were once an ancient series of lakes, brimming with freshwater and teeming with life.

Among them was Lake Mungo, which dried up about 15,000 years ago, leaving behind a stunning landscape. Dr. Bowler had ventured out after a rainstorm when he spotted a white object poking out of the sand, glinting in the afternoon sun. It was a skull.

He alerted archaeologists at the Australian National University and the team rushed to the scene, carefully excavating Mungo Man and taking him 800 kilometers away to Canberra. Mutthi Mutthi elder Mary Pappin’s view is that it was Mungo Man who found Dr. Bowler, not the other way around. Mungo Man was very clever because he revealed himself to a man of science,” she said.

“He thought he [Dr. Bowler] would be the ideal person to make white Australia understand just how long us Aboriginal people had been here.”

The excavation of skeleton remains from the Willandra Lakes Region has angered local Indigenous people.

What has Mungo Man taught us?

During Mungo Man’s excavation in 1974, Dr. Bowler dated the earth in which he was buried and estimated his age at 30,000 years or older. Later, scientists would redate the bones at 42–44,000 years. For many Aboriginal people, this was a welcome confirmation of what they had long been saying.

“We believe he came because he wanted to tell the rest of Australia as well as the world just how long us Aboriginal people have been walking on this landscape,” Ms Pappin said.

It wasn’t just the skeleton’s antiquity that astonished scientists. It was the complexity of his burial. Mungo Man had been carefully laid out, his hands placed in his lap, and his body covered in red ochre. The substance was transported from hundreds of kilometers away.

The remains of a small fire were close by.

“To find on the shores of Lake Mungo the extraordinary ritual of ochre and fire was a moment of sheer wonder,” said Dr Bowler, now aged 88.

“We were blown away by it.”

Mungo Man is the oldest and most complete skeletal remains found in Australia.

Further research found Mungo Man’s lower teeth had been deliberately extracted during adolescence, suggesting initiation rites. Arthritis in his right elbow pointed to a life of spear throwing. Scientists say Mungo Man showed these ancient people had culture, complex language, complex tools, and ceremonies. Paakantyi man Michael Young said this cultural sophistication changed all prior perceptions of Aboriginal people.

“That idea that Aboriginal people were nomadic and primitive people have been blown away,” he said. As a result of the unique cultural and environmental features uncovered in the Willandra Lakes, the region was listed on the world heritage register in 1981.