Students participate in Mungo Man Return to Country

Lake Mungo Traditional Owners have invited RMIT Landscape Architecture lecturer Jock Gilbert and students to participate in the ceremony and celebration of the Return to Country of Mungo Man. In response, Jock Gilbert (who has led design studios and research engaging with Barkandji communities in Western NSW for the past four years), the RMIT Student Landscape Architecture Body (SLAB), along with the Architecture and Design Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Steering Committee organised a trip to the south west of NSW to share in this momentous and significant occasion.

Following the repatriation of Mungo Lady in 2002, it has taken another 15 years of negotiation between scientific institutions and Traditional Owners for the return of Mungo Man – an event marked on Country in a significant and moving ceremony on the actual lake shore before a large crowd of community, and RMIT students and academics. Speakers at the ceremony continually expressed the hope that the Return might also mark a turning point for the whole country. 

Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly says that, “hopefully Mungo Man coming home is the point where Australia as a nation can start healing”.

Sophia Pearce of the Culpra Milli Aboriginal Corporation expressed the delight of Elders and community members in hosting the student group and a desire ‘for more learning like this in a collaborative and meaningful way, facilitating a ‘two-way’ process between Barkandji people and the student body associated with RMIT and specifically SLAB.

Drawn from disciplines across the Schools of Architecture and Design and Vocational Health & Sciences, students and staff stayed first on the station property of the Culpra Milli Aboriginal Corporation outside Euston in NSW. There they were welcomed onto Barkandji Country with a smoking ceremony by Elders Barry and Betty Pearce and their daughter Sophia Pearce.  Uncle Barry explained the significance of the smoking as a cleansing of any unwanted spirits that might have also made the journey from the city and described the importance of this in relation to the ceremony.

International Industrial Design student, Will Zhu remarked that ‘This was such a great opportunity for me...I really enjoyed the insights on Australian landscape and Aboriginal culture, this was one of my most memorable experiences in Australia.

Student Landscape Architecture Body leaders, Millicent Gunner and Louella Exton said it was ‘very special and a great privilege to share and to be welcomed into these events and places and the significance of it keeps growing and growing in our heads each day.’ 

The trip was an enormous success. Leader Jock Gilbert explained it as ‘an example of the way that the Landscape Architecture program at RMIT aims to facilitate a mutual acknowledgment of sovereignty as a basis for the discovery and understanding of, and engagement with, Aboriginal ways of knowing Australian landscape and the relationship of these to contemporary Landscape Architecture practice’. 


Lake Mungo is situated in south western NSW, 120 kms east of Mildura, a vast expanse of low salt scrub bordered at the eastern horizon by the shining white walls of sand lunettes. The lake is part of the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, an ancient system of ephemeral lakes and watercourses within an arid landscape. This is the landscape that once supported megafauna including the Procoptodon, a short-faced, giant kangaroo and other large mammals. The region was also home to what is now understood as being one of the world’s oldest civilisations, the ancestors of today’s Traditional Owners, the Barkandji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyaampa people.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Mungo Man was one of many ancient human remains exhumed from the lake’s shore and, at between 40000 and 68000 years of age, he is one of the oldest individuals in Australia. Both Mungo Man and the later Mungo Lady remains display evidence of ceremonial and ritual burial, corroborating what Aboriginal people have always known – that theirs is a civilization both ancient and significant.

More about the Return to Country of Mungo Man can be found in The Guardian, the Center for Earth Ethics, and the Western Heritage Group's Mungo Report.

Philip BeleskyNews