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SCIENCE AND THE DREAMING
Nature and Culture at Lake Mungo: Conflict or Convergent?
The 1968 discovery of cremated human remains deep within shoreline sands of a then un-named basin in western NSW (later named Lake Mungo), opened a new chapter in Australian history. Dated even at that time as well beyond 20,000 years and known today as those of Mungo Lady, they stand as the oldest example of human cremation in the world. The discovery in 1974, just 400 metres away on the same sands, of a ritually anointed, fully articulated male skeleton, Mungo Man, set this Willandra Lakes area on the pathway to its 1981World Heritage inscription.
Mungo Man’s burial records a ritual, extraordinary for its age and complexity.Enacted there on lake shores 40,000 years ago, it involved both fire and an ochre anointing ritual. It reflects a deep sense of spiritual connections with earth. A Nature-Culture conjunction, it expresses a cosmic awareness of land – people symbiosis. Long before any modern religion, the Mungo burials resonate with requiem rituals in any cathedral today. To a startled world, the reality of ancient Australians as a culturally sophisticated people suddenly became believable.
The bones went to the Australian National University for closer study. Our Aboriginal cousins were not pleased! Their objections were swift and uncompromising. “This is our history, not yours!” Unwittingly, my colleague, the physical anthropologist the late Dr. Alan Thorne and I had reopened wounds of grave robbing and body snatching.
To validate post-Darwinian notions of white racial superiority, skulls were used as a measure of racial status. The method known as “cranial profiling” was freely applied right here in Melbourne. Mr. Murray Black, a Gippsland resident near my home town, Leongatha, collected skeletons by the hundred, many for the University of Melbourne. In Aboriginal eyes, Thorne and I had joined the grave robbers.Those memories were deep and painful.
What followed was more than we could have expected. From conflict, we reached an accord in 1989 to work together. More importantly, mutually different world views, scientific and traditional dreaming,began each to inform and learn from the other.
From the spiritually rich tapestry of Mungo Man’s ritual burial, through the creation stories of indigenous peoples to the deep “Connection to Country” of present Aboriginal descendants, the rational world of Science came to complement rather than contradict the other. In this cross-cultural context each listens to and interacts with the other. Nature & Culture, seen together in Mungo Man’s time, generate new Spirit energy today. That reality provided the Willandra Lakes World Heritage inscription.
While much has been achieved, huge problems remain. The bones have been brought home, but there’s nowhere appropriate to put them! We await the Land-People Cultural Centre concept, where scientific stories of land together with the stories (and bones!) of its people expand that concept of “what it means to be Australian”.
Jim Bowler obtained his MSc and PhD at ANU. His honours and awards include
• Fellow of the Royal Society of Victoria, 1999
• Member of the Order of Australia, AM, 1999
• Mawson Medal, Australian Academy of Sciences, 1989
• Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1988
• Stillwell Medal, Geological Society of Australia,
This lunch will take place at the Savage Club at 12 noon for 12.30pm. The Club is at 12 Bank Place (off Collins Street) in the City. Cost is $55 including drinks. All guests are most welcome; the more the better. Would you please advise Peter Baines at email@example.com or on 9820 2334 by latest Monday noon, 15 October, if you will be coming (and dietary requirements). Those emailing their intention to attend should ring Peter to confirm if they receive no email confirmation from him within 24 hours of booking.