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aboriginal burials at the Willandra Lakes

NPWS, NSW & Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area Management Council Archaeology in Oceania Vol. 33 No. 3 1998

excerpt one

Aboriginal cemeteries are known from only a few regions in Australia, including the top end–Melville Island, Cape York, south-eastern Queensland, and the Murray River Basin. Traditional Aboriginal cemeteries of the Murray River may have contained hundreds of burials. At Lake Victoria in south-western New South Wales, burials have been conservatively numbered by archaeologists at 10 000, making it the largest cemetery in Australia and the largest of non-agricultural people in the world. Dr Colin Pardoe, Curator of Physical Anthropology at the South Australian Museum, believes this find could force reevaluation of our notions of territoriality and land tenure in the region. Specifically, a cemetery in use for perhaps 6 000 years containing numerous generations of people suggests groups which are not nomadic in the usual sense. While the numbers of burials may only be one or two per year to create such large numbers, this suggests continuous use of the cemetery–a tradition spanning thousands of years. While a very small population could eventually create such a large cemetery, evidence indicates a large Aboriginal pre-contact population in the area around Lake Victoria.

Below are some comments made by elders of the local Aboriginal community about sites and burials found at Lake Victoria, south-west NSW.

(Source: Lake Victoria: An Aboriginal Community Report for Lake Victoria, NSW by the National Parks and Wildlife Service for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and Engineering Water Supply, 1994.)

Mary Wise:

'I feel that the burials should have been protected many years ago, but this is a modern time and it is good that we, as Aboriginal people, can have a say today. The burials are very special, I felt moved that everyone worked together on the works carried out.

I felt very strong feelings about Lake Victoria, and how people never spoilt the work of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, Engineering Water Supply, National Parks & Water Supply and other elders, and not forgetting Carnma CDEP.'

Claude Mitchell:

'I would like to see a levy bank to protect the burial grounds, this type of levy would be a large one so the lake could be filled high to the top of the levy bank. Not in the short term but in the long term I would like to see more Government Departments working on these types of issues, when confronted with Aboriginal burials. It is good that everyone has played an important part in what has been a huge task for those who have been involved. I think it would be a good thing to tell how culture is being kept and preserved. We must understand everyone needs water for life, that's why burials are common near creeks, sand hills and lake foreshores. So I hope that people can come to an understanding and work together in the future when protecting all Aboriginal sites.'

excerpt two

Aboriginal Burials in the Willandra Lakes: Ancestors of the Muthi Muthi, Barkindji and Ny iampaa

The study of the Aboriginal remains from the Willandra Lakes has generated considerable scientific debate, but the polarised positions of the late 1980's over the issue of ownership of heritage (Stannard 1988, Cribb 1990) has served to create considerable resistance to scientists, and scientific interests, in the local Aboriginal community. Research on burials continues to receive resistance from the Aboriginal community where the research is perceived to be contrary to traditional belief systems. Any study of burials is an issue on which the Aboriginal tribal groups associated with the Willandra have deep, close and at times mixed feelings. Nevertheless, with the exception of Mungo I which was returned to Aboriginal care and control in 1992, all of the Willandra remains continue to be housed at the Australian National University with endorsement from the Aboriginal Elders of the region. The Elders have also endorsed a non destructive dating programme for several of the crania (Thorpe pers comm.).

Large numbers of burials remain in the field and a detailed reconnaissance of these was undertaken 1995 in a project that was designed by the Muthi Muthi, Barkindji and Nyiampaa Elders of the area (NPWS 1995). This study focussed on burial conservation, rather than investigations, and recording was limited to photographing and developing a means of in situ conservation of burials. Approximately 60 burials were located in a wide variety of landforms and exposure contexts, and many of the heavily mineralised and deeply stratified burials are clearly of Pleistocene age, including dual burials, flexed burials and cremations.

A cranium, first noted by Webb (1989) at the south end of Lake Mungo, has now been more fully exposed by ongoing erosion over the past 9 years and has been identified as the complete cranium and mandible of a child (Clark and Johnston pers obs.). This individual is located stratigraphically and geographically between Mungo Woman (Mungo I) and Mungo Man (Mungo III). Samples of the surrounding sands taken for OSL dating are yet to be reported but the stratigraphic location of the site places it firmly within Mungo age sediments. This, and the dating research being conducted by Thorne, are the only cases where study of burials, using non destructive and non intrusive methods, has been permitted in the last 10 years. Further study of this and other burial sites in the Willandra region will remain an activity firmly regulated and supervised by Muthi Muthi, Barkindji and Nyiampaa Elders.

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