The 42,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man and Mungo Lady have been reburied despite an application to stay the burial under federal Aboriginal heritage laws and the New South Wales government promising in writing that the burial would not go ahead.
Guardian Australia understands the ancient remains were reburied this week. Traditional owners who opposed the reburial say they are “shocked and outraged”.
The reburial plan was put forward by the NSW parks service and the Willandra Lakes Region Aboriginal Advisory Group, and approved by the former federal environment minister Sussan Ley in April.
However, a number of traditional owners from the Barkindji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa peoples, who have custodianship of the area, disagreed with the plan, which they say contradicted the wishes of elders who negotiated with archaeologists and the Australian government for more than 40 years to have the remains returned to country.
On 20 May they filed an application under section nine of the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, which allows the environment minister to make an emergency declaration to prevent the desecration of Aboriginal heritage.
The federal department confirmed to the traditional owners that the reburial would not take place while the application was being considered, at least 14 days. The federal department wrote to the NSW government, which confirmed in writing that the reburial would not take place.
While an interim ministry of the Albanese government was sworn in on Monday, a minister has not yet been appointed to respond to the emergency heritage declaration and the stay on the reburial remains in place. Despite that, elders from the Barkindji, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa peoples have reported that Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were reburied on Monday or Tuesday this week, against their wishes. It is understood the remains of 106 other ancient people were not reburied.
The incoming minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, received a briefing on the matter from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment on Thursday.
“I have been advised that the NSW government provided written assurance that this burial would not occur at this time,” Burney said.
“We have asked the NSW government to get to the bottom of how this happened given they had control of the remains.”
Heritage NSW, which is responsible for managing the park, said the matter was being investigated.
“We recognise this is a sensitive matter particularly within the Aboriginal community,” it said in a statement. “It is important that it is handled carefully and thoroughly.
“An investigation is under way into the removal of some remains from where they were being stored.”
Heritage NSW did not respond directly to a request to confirm the ancient remains had been reburied.
Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were both stored at a NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service facility at Mungo national park. Mungo Lady was stored in a bank vault within the storage room.
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Mutthi Mutthi man Jason Kelly said he was “deeply shocked” that the reburial had taken place.
“We are shocked. We are outraged. It’s really very distressing,” Kelly told Guardian Australia. “It has caused immense cultural harm.”
Kelly was one of the applicants to halt the reburial, which he said goes against the wishes outlined by elders including his grandmother, who wanted the remains returned to country and held in a protective keeping place.
“This is my grandmother’s worst nightmare, to have them go and be scattered in an unknown location,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of ceremony was performed, we don’t know that they are protected.”
Kelly said traditional owners who oppose the burial received reassurance last week that it would not go ahead. They heard on Monday that the reburial may be occurring, but were told by both NSW Parks and Wildlife staff and the federal environment department that it would not go ahead until the application was resolved.
They later learned the remains had been reburied. Kelly compared the incident to Rio Tinto blowing up the 46,000-year-old rock shelter Juukan Gorge, without the free, prior and informed consent of traditional owners.
Traditional owners from the three groups have called for an urgent independent investigation.
“Mungo Man and Mungo Lady were under the care and protection of the NSW government and we were assured by the government that it was not going to happen,” he said. “We were reassured again on Tuesday, and it was already happening.”