From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Jenny Bowler
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Jenny Bowler's biography and other articles by this writer
Alone in my parents' kitchen on a recent visit, I was drawn to the sheets of slides scattered on the table.
I've walked past my father's organised chaos most of my life. Dad was always surrounded by images from his work in the field, as a scientist specialising in climate change. This time it was different. I stopped and lifted one up. I felt I was sneaking a look at a forbidden world. Expecting to see boring sand and soil or aerial shots of geological sites, I was instead confronted with the most amazing series of slides he had ever taken. A window to Australia's ancient past opened – at least 40,000 years stretched between us. I was entranced. These traces of ancient Aboriginal Australia had echoed across the country, causing a revelation over thirty years ago. They had been in my father's collection all this time, yet I'd never seen them.
Captured in sepia-like tones, a human skull lay exposed. A stark white profile, etched on the surface of soft sand, so hauntingly real it took my breath away. As the sequence of slides unfolded and the sand was carefully removed, the extremities of the skeleton revealed themselves, calcified bones still intact. Finally, in a crucifix-shaped excavation, the full skeletal remains of a human being rested, knees slightly bent, hands placed together in the groin. I wondered what Dad must have felt in that moment of discovery.
The following slide showed three people, two of whom I recognised. They were Albert and Venda Barnes, the owners of Mungo Station, a sheep property of eighteen thousand hectares, quietly nestled in a dry south-west corner of New South Wales. Venda wearing her '70s denim dress and Albert in his shirt crisp and white, stood together contemplating this visitor from the dreaming who had unexpectedly been discovered, lying with such dignity in their sand hills. This profound moment would later change their lives and their family's tenure of the land they called home. They would eventually sell the property to the state for a national park.
Mungo Man, as he came to be known, was ritually buried over forty-two thousand years ago in these dunes. Recording this moment – coming face to face with the fossilised remains of someone who had lived in the last ice age – my father wrote, ‘We were confronted, not simply by evidence of human activity but by the very presence of humanity itself.' This evidence of a sophisticated burial, the body having been anointed in ochre, was the oldest ritual burial found in the world. These findings, along with the discovery some five years earlier of an exposed cranium, belonging to a young woman who had been cremated – the oldest known cremation in the world – corroborated the claims made by present-day Aboriginal people that they have occupied this land for an immense period of time. Australian archaeology came into its own. It
BACK IN THE LATE 1960s, my father was doing his PhD on climate change, his research taking him to inland closed lake systems, important because they acted as rain gauges – sensitive indicators to major changes in the climate. Mungo was one of these ancient lakes. With a house full of kids in Canberra, Mungo was also a great escape. Dad was at home in the bush, the breadth and depth of isolated places resonated with him. Rough and ready, he played his classical music loud and cooked a good hot curry. When he was home, arguments were hot and volatile too.
As a child, when people asked me, ‘What does your Dad do?' I would rattle off an awkward response: ‘He's a bio-geologist, geomorphologist.' I had no idea what it meant. We use to joke that he could have a better conversation with a rock than he could with any of his kids. He was bound by his fate: these discoveries of such cultural and international significance swept Jim Bowler into other-worldly realms. As a scientist, poised at the threshold of an ancient world, questions and challenges arose daily and the mysteries continued to be unearthed at Lake Mungo – he was lost to us kids. I was eight years old.
There were always bits of stone flint, rocks and fossils scattered around our home when I was growing up, hints of the landscape that had captivated him. As a young girl, I was fascinated by the fossils, holding them longingly, wishing I could be a part of his world. I would take them to school for ‘show and tell', too shy to say much; they would speak for themselves.
As the oldest of the six kids, I was the first to initiate the inevitable challenges to his authority. Reflecting on my teenage years, he recently wrote, ‘Elders were now being called regularly into question. Respect for ancient traditions, prayer, the dignity real or misplaced of church, all became increasingly the object of girlish disrespect.' I had begun my own journey. The battle with my father went on for years.
One of the gifts he gave me was Mungo. We took a rare family trip there when I was fourteen. A typical teenager, I was feeling isolated and yearning for something, I knew not what. The mystery surrounding the sand dunes, caressing the dry, flat lake bed of Mungo, sang a tune to me and captured my spirit. I sensed a deeper dreaming – a truth I knew, but for which I had no container. I fell into a deep silence as we left the Barnes' homestead in our crowded car. I didn't want to leave.
Layers of generations, going back thousands of years, lie embedded in these exposed dunes. They bring home an undeniable truth: we all stand on top of eons of generations. My own family's arrival in Australia began in the early 1900s when my father's father set out from Ireland, crossing the seas to explore frontiers and find opportunities in Australia. After marrying here, he was immediately sent away to war and he returned with part of his soul locked away forever. My father, initially following in his father's footsteps on the potato farm, soon stole away to explore a larger world. Leaving the coastal fringes to explore inland Australia, he discovered Mungo.
Back in July 1968, while on a routine research trip alone on the eerie dunes at Lake Mungo, events followed that would change my father's life. While mapping the ancient beaches often littered with stone artefacts, his attention was brought to a ‘portion of strange bone fragments appearing out of the eroding soil on the lunette'. He later wrote, ‘I found myself walking in the footsteps of people who had lived, loved and died on these same sands many thousands of years ago.' Archaeologists soon arrived and identified these shattered bones as the cranium of a young woman, the first modern human of such antiquity to be found in Australia. Originally called Mungo Lady, she had ritually been cremated some forty-two thousand years before, her skull burnt, crushed and placed in a hole in the ground. These fragments, in danger of being eroded by sheep, were removed, packed in the suitcase of eminent archaeologist Professor John Mulvaney and taken to Canberra. The tribal women from the Willandra country, of which Mungo is a part, called her back home. She was returned in a small ceremony thirty-four years later in 1992, to the traditional owners of her land, who are still awaiting funds – more than fifteen years later, to build a ‘keeping place' for the treasured remains of their ancestors.