Of these 150,000 years, we know that modern Europeans have been present in Australia since 1788 – less than 1% of that time.
The people that I am calling Kooris (a term that many Australian Aborigines use to describe themselves, especially in NSW) have been present a lot longer.
To the best of our current knowledge, people who looked like modern Kooris may have existed in Australia for perhaps up to 10% of the entire period of human occupation.
No human remains that resemble modern Kooris have yet been discovered from earlier than about 13,000 years BP.
All Australian human remains of an earlier date look as different from Kooris as modern Zulus look different to Kalahari Bushmen.
Prior to the Holocene period there is ample evidence of two completely separate forms of humanity in Australia.
One type is best represented by the people discovered at Lake Mungo; the other is typified by the people found at Kow Swamp.
The female skull known as Mungo 1 was discovered in 1969, after lying undisturbed since she was ritually cremated maybe 26,000 years ago.
The intact male skeleton of Mungo III was found in 1974, and had been buried maybe 30,000 years ago. These ice age people from Lake Mungo were very fine-featured and slenderly built.
They had none of the characteristics that modern scientists call “archaic”, such as extremely thick bone or a steeply sloping forehead.
As might be expected from their modern appearance, the Mungo people enjoyed what was, for the times, a sophisticated way of life.
They caught golden perch in fixed gill nets, and foraged for mussels, yabbies, emu eggs and various small birds and animals. They even ground wild grass seeds to make a form of bread.
The people at Kow Swamp, near Cohuna, were found in a graveyard containing at least forty graves. Burials at this site continued from about 15,000 to 9,000 years ago.
Although only half as ancient as the Lake Mungo people, the Kow Swamp people were far more archaic physically.
They “had large, long heads with exceptionally thick bone, up to 1.3 cm thick. Their faces were large, wide and projecting, with prominent brow ridges, and flat, receding foreheads. The jaws and teeth are massive.”
Neither of these people resembled contemporary Kooris.
Josephine Flood comments that:
“All the Australian Pleistocene human remains lie outside the range of present-day Aboriginal skeletal forms of the appropriate sex, but they fall into two contrasting groups, one more lightly-built than any modem Australian Aborigines, the other more rugged and archaic-looking.”
The gracile people, such as Mungo I & III, are generally thought to have originated from near Palawan, in the Philippines.
The more recent, more primitive people, including those from Kow Swamp, Cossack, and Talgai, are often considered to be descendants of Solo Man (from central Java).
Some of these people were so archaic (such as the male from Willandra Lakes known as W.L.H.50) that they even made their presumed relatives at Kow Swamp look comparatively modern.
Many academics today argue that Australia’s Kooris are partially descended from some of these earlier types of humanity.
To give one example, Dr. Rhys Jones of A.N.U. has been quoted as inferring that since most Kooris have skulls half way between Solo man and modern man, they are probably a mixture of Solo man and “later waves of immigrants”.
Rather loose comments (or reporting) of this kind are the basis on which Kooris lay claim to a longer heritage in Australia than they can demonstrate.
The events of August 1990, however, show that genuine respect for Kooris as a people should not be allowed to interfere with rigorous scientific procedure.
In 1990, the Echuca Aboriginal Co-operative laid claim to the Kow Swamp remains. They informed the Museum of Victoria that they regarded these ancient bones as relics of their own ancestors, and that they wanted to re-bury them in a secret location.
Dr. Alan Thorne, the original excavator at Kow Swamp, and Professor John Mulvaney, an eminent prehistorian, both protested.
The Kow Swamp people, they argued, were not directly ancestral to anyone living in the area today.
“They display anatomical features not present in living people generally, or Aboriginal people in particular”, Dr. Thorne was reported to have said.
L.R. Hiatt, past-President of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, wrote that “The nature of the evolutionary links between the fossils of Kow Swamp and modern Aborigines is amatter of considerable scientific controversy.
In view of some exceptionally archaic features of the former, any claimby the people of Echuca for a direct ancestral connection would have to be regarded as highly problematic …”
Many other scientists, social commentators and reporters criticised the proposal. Even the staff association at the Museum of Victoria objected.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from Peter H. Pigott, AM, former Chairman of the Federal Government Committee of Enquiry on Museums and National Collections. In a letter to The Australian published on 9 August 1990, he fulminated that:
“Manyarchaeologists believe that the Kow Swamp people represent a different and earlier migration of people to Australia than the ancestors of the present-day Aborigine.
This of course may in the minds of the few radicals pressing for the destruction of the Kow Swamp remains be a sinister thorn in the side of the land rights claim.
In their minds such an earlier migration puts the latter in the same category as the one two hundred years ago, the only difference being they (i.e. the latter) were white.
The Kow Swamp material is of extra national importance and cannot be claimed by people living today, separated by seven hundred and fiftydifferent generations and a different race.”
Even though many eminent scientists had by now admitted that the Kow Swamp remains were of “a different race” to the Kooris, the remains were handed over to the Echuca Aboriginal Co-Operative by Mr. McCutcheon, the Victorian Minister for the Arts, and Mr. Mier, the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
They were subsequently re-buried, perhaps just in time to prevent scientific testing that might have shown conclusively that contemporary Kooris are genetically unrelated to the Kow Swamp people.
Or perhaps not just in time.
In June 1991 Alan Thorne was reported as saying that a sample of DNA had somehow been obtained from one of the Kow Swamp skulls, and was being genetically tested.
What of the slender, modern-looking Lake Mungo people? Surely the Kooris would find it even harder to claim relationship with these people who were not only “of a different race”, but also separated from any living human by fifteen hundred generations?
Not so. It seems that some compromise was reached between science and political expediency and on 11 January 1992, Mungo Woman’s remains were handed over to the local Koori community for “safe-keeping”.
Future scientists would only be able to examine these remains with the approval of modern Koori “custodians”.
In July 2021, however, the federal government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment sought public comment on the Department of Premier and Cabinet’s proposal
“to complete a series of reburial ceremonies including the excavation of graves for the reburial of 108 Willandra Lakes Aboriginal Ancestors at 26 sites within the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area, NSW”.
The public was given a scanty 10 working days to make submissions. See:
Despite the wild claims, so clearly summed up by Peter Pigott as being related to land rights issues, there is not a shred of hard evidence that modem Kooris are related in any way to the two races that have so far been discovered to have preceded them in Australia.