The reburials of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady have been delayed after traditional owners filed an urgent eleventh-hour application to stop what they have described as the “rushed destruction” of some of the oldest human remains ever found.
Estimated to be at least 42,000 years old, Mungo Man, Mungo Lady and 106 other skeletal remains were to be quietly reburied in unmarked sites in the Willandra Lakes region of south-west New South Wales this week, according to local sources.
But the process is on hold after a letter sent to the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment said the reburials posed a threat to the remains through possible resurfacing or disturbance and treated them in a manner inconsistent with Aboriginal tradition.
The application challenging the reburial was filed by elders representing the area’s three Indigenous groups: the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa, and Barkandji-Paakantyi.
A spokesperson for the department said the challenge was in relation to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act and, as a result, the NSW government had postponed the reburial to allow the incoming commonwealth minister to consider the application.
The spokesperson said reburial plans were on hold until the relevant incoming federal minister had assessed the application.
Reburial consultations questioned
Last month, then federal environment minister Susan Ley announced that the remains, which were removed in the 1960s and 1970s without the permission of traditional owners, would be returned to country and placed in unmarked graves.
She said the decision was based on long discussions with the Willandra Lakes Aboriginal Advisory Group (AAG), an elected consulting group up of nine traditional owners.
However, many traditional owners, including Mutthi Mutthi and Wamba Wamba man Jason Kelly, say the AAG does not represent the broader community.
He said the government relied too heavily on the group’s perspective and excluded other members of the community, in effect not obtaining prior and informed consent from Aboriginal people, as legally required.
Mr Kelly said he had signatures of 18 elders who wanted Mungo Man and Mungo Lady reburied in safe and secure places with memorials, rather than in unmarked locations.
The group also wants an education centre built and broader community consultation about what to do with the other 106 ancestral remains.
“This horrific plan to bury them in secret locations, we wouldn’t do that with our people today, so why would we do that with our most historically significant ancestors?” Mr Kelly said.
Baakandji-Paakantyi man Michael Young said he also wanted “our heritage and stories retained”.
“We don’t want to see them destroyed like Juukan Gorge and to offer a simplistic excuse as to why it was done,” he said.
New minister’s decision
Mr Young said Ms Ley had not responded to complaints about the plans she officially approved last month.
At the time, Ms Ley said the plans had the blessing of the AAG and were based on a recommendation from Heritage NSW, which received 162 submissions during public consultation.
Mr Young hoped a new minister would be more receptive to their concerns.
“Hopefully the new minister will be briefed and this could be the one [put] on top of the pile,” he said.
“We hope that they will follow through with our requests to stop this destruction of Aboriginal culture.
“To start engaging with the right sort of people and the right sort of conversation that we need for this for our future generations.”
Mr Young hoped the new minister, yet to be appointed by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, would overturn the decision to rebury the remains in unmarked locations “within the next few weeks”.