Mungo Man, Mungo Lady buried despite traditional owners’ legal challenge

Margie Jones
09/10/2023

Mungo ManThe federal government says the remains of Mungo Man, Mungo Lady, and 106 other Indigenous skeletons were buried on Tuesday.(Supplied: Jim Bowler)

Australia’s oldest remains have been buried despite an eleventh-hour legal challenge, leaving traditional owners “outraged”.

The 42,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man, Mungo Lady and 106 other Indigenous skeletons, which were removed in the 1960s and 1970s without the permission of traditional owners, were proposed to be re-interred at unmarked sites in the Willandra Lakes region of south-west New South Wales.

A group of traditional owners representing the area’s three Indigenous groups, the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa, and Barkandji-Paakantyi, filed an injunction earlier this week under section 9 of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, to prevent the burial.

A statement the federal Department of Agriculture, Water, and Environment on Tuesday said the re-burial had been delayed until the incoming federal minister had assessed the application.

However, the department said it had since been advised the remains had been buried.

“It was the department’s expectation, based on communication with the NSW Government, that the re-burial would not be occurring,” the statement reads.

“On the 24th May, the department was advised by the NSW government that the Willandra Ancestral Remains had, in fact, been re-buried that day.”

Light coloured sand featuring small rock formations and small stubble bushes Traditional owners are outraged the remains have been buried. (ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly said he was devastated by the decision.

“This is an outrage against our culture, our heritage, our history, our people,” he said.

“We want to know how this has happened and who is responsible for this desecration.

“This is just so disrespectful on all fronts and goes against the wishes of hundreds of past and present elders who have pleaded for a culturally-appropriate re-burial for our ancestors.”

Man with grey beard wearing a black short sleeved collared shirt featuring bands of blue, white, red, orange and yellow stripes. Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly has called for an investigation into how the burial of the remains went ahead. (ABC Mildura: Richard Crabtree)

Mr Kelly has called on the NSW Environment Minister James Griffin to investigate how the burial went ahead.

“He must find what the justification was for going ahead with these secret re-burials in unknown locations and why it was done in defiance of our urgent court application,” Mr Kelly said.

“We call on the minister to tell us where the remains are now buried, so that we can provide Mungo Man and Mungo Lady with a culturally-appropriate public memorial on country.”

Paakantyi man Michael Young said First Nations people across the country had been disrespected by the action.

“We are still getting our heritage destroyed at an alarming rate by organisations and now government officials,” he said.

“It is a slap in the face of native title holders.”

Mr Young said those responsible should be held accountable for the “destruction”.

“I think these people have done a criminal act, a criminal act against Indigenous people,” he said.

“You don’t take it on yourself to destroy 42,000-year-old human remains, these people have got to be prosecuted.”

The ABC approached the Aboriginal Advisory Group, who have previously supported the re-burial, for comment.

A Heritage NSW spokesperson said an investigation was under way into the removal of some remains from where they were being stored.

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