In its September, 2019 issue, Smithsonian magazine published a celebratory article about the reburial of a 42,000 year old skeleton named Mungo Man. Smithsonian is the fifty-year-old official journal of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institution itself is often referred to, lovingly, as “The Nation’s Attic,” housing, as it does, Dorothy’s Ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Archie Bunker’s comfy chair from All in the Family, as well as the Enola Gay, the Hope Diamond, and “The Nation’s Tyrannosaurus Rex.”
The logo of the Smithsonian is a bright yellow sun shining, unimpeded by any cloud, in a blazing blue sky. Clearly this logo represents Enlightenment concepts of the untrammeled search for truth through disciplined scholarship. James Smithson (1765-1829) was an English chemist and mineralogist who never visited the United States. It was his will that established the Smithsonian. Smithson bequeathed his fortune to an institution bearing his name and dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Today, the Smithsonian is funded by taxpayer dollars. “Federal appropriations cover about 70 cents of every dollar needed by the Smithsonian.”
In its September, 2019 coverage, Smithsonian magazine points out that Australian geologist Jim Bowler found Mungo Man on the dry remains of Mungo Lake in New South Wales, Australia, in 1974. This skeleton rewrote history. It is one of the best preserved ancient skeletons ever found. Scientists knew the man’s age, about fifty, his height, 6’5″, and that he had arthritis in his right elbow from throwing a spear. His teeth were worn to the pulp, and at a distinctive slant, perhaps from stripping reeds for twine. Mungo Man remains had been laid out in what appeared to be a ceremonial manner, his interlocking fingers placed over his groin, a fire nearby, and red ocher sprinkled over the corpse. This is one of the oldest ceremonial burials ever found. Mungo Man is further significant in that his age pushes back the length of time humans have lived in Australia, and also pushes back the time period when modern humans left Africa. Mungo Lady, similarly ancient, was discovered in 1969. Archaeologists say that Mungo Lady was cremated, after which her bones were crushed, burned again, and then buried. This is the oldest known cremation.
Scientists cannot claim that they have gathered all the knowledge that Mungo Man or Mungo Lady have to offer. As impressive as today’s techniques are, it is inevitable that the future will produce new ones. For example, in 1928 Australian polymath Norman Tindale and Harvard anthropologist Joseph Birdsell began collecting Aboriginal hair samples. They could have had no idea that in April, 2017, those very hair samples would result in a Nature article verifying, through DNA analysis of their decades-old hair samples, that Aborigines have been in Australia for over 50,000 years. DNA analysis did not exist when Tindal and Birdsell began their collection.
One might think that Smithsonian magazine would champion the science that explicated Mungo Man and Lady, and challenge the politics that resulted in their reburial. One would be wrong. Smithsonian‘s coverage of this reburial pits big, bad, cold, racist, anti-earth white man science in a jousting match against pure, peaceful, earthy Aboriginal spirituality. Aboriginal spirituality is romanticized and exoticized. Science is demonized as the tool of racist imperialists. Science is also denigrated as deficient in its ability to arrive at the truth.
Smithsonian’s coverage depicts the denial of science as compassionate to Aborigines. In fact this approach does no favor to the Aborigines, one of the most unfortunate populations on earth. It imprisons Aborigines in a fake identity as something between prehistoric wild animals and modern-day ghosts. This exoticized identity serves whites’ paternalistic woke fantasies, while it handicaps Aborigines in their efforts to thrive in the modern world.
Smithsonian’s coverage of the sacrificial reburial of one of the most scientifically important sets of human remains is sentimentally titled “The Homecoming.” The subtitle indicates that “Mungo Man … is finally being returned to the Aboriginal people.” This subtitle is counterfactual. The Aboriginal people never possessed Mungo Man. Had a Western-trained scientist not unearthed these remains, they would have stayed where they had been for the past forty millennia – underground in a remote, inhospitable desert.
The first page of the Smithsonian article is a two-page spread of a monochromatic moonscape. “The mysterious skeleton emerged from Lake Mungo,” a small caption proclaims. Except that the skeleton did not “emerge.” It was discovered and unearthed using time-tested scientific techniques by patient, disciplined scientists toiling under hot sun. One can see a photo of their work at the National Museum of Australia website. To arrive at that photo, though, one must first past a gatekeeper screen that announces, in white script on a black background, that “The National Museum of Australia acknowledges First Australians and recognises their continuous connection to country, community and culture.” This opening screen is part of a new custom in Australia, where public events begin with such announcements. Kenan Malik, an Indian-born scientist who has championed Enlightenment values, fears that these announcements, that appear so righteous, are “little more than a ritual incantation that allows white Australians to assuage guilt.”
Another Smithsonian magazine caption reads, “He walked the earth 42,000 years ago. Now his remains are at rest.” Is it really the job of Smithsonian to assume that bones have feelings, and that when those bones are in a museum, rather than a grave, they are agitated, but putting the bones back in the ground “rests” them? Smithsonian, like an announcer at a prizefight, tells us who occupies each corner of a ring: “an agonizing clash” occurred “between modern science and ancient spirituality.”
Quotes from Mungo Man discoverer, Jim Bowler, reinforce the Aboriginal spirituality v white science dichotomy. “‘Aboriginal people have a deep spiritual connection to the land. The ocher Mungo Man was buried in was a link to the cosmos. Western culture has lost these connections.’ The Aboriginal use of stories and myths satisfies deep human longing for meaning. ‘Science has trouble explaining mysteries. There’s an entire reality beyond the scientific one.'”
Bowler romanticizes pre-contact Aboriginal life. One might think that Bowler’s romanticization is a good thing, a compliment to Aborigines. But Bowler is making Aborigines other than regular people. He’s making them other than himself, other than you or me. And Bowler is monopolizing science for white Westerners. If Aborigines are all about spirit, stories and mystery, then they aren’t fit for science. This is racism, pure and simple.
There’s another discovery from Lake Mungo: 560 footprints that are 21,000 years old. The prints were made by 12 men, four women and seven children. The guess is that the prints were made by an extended family. Note the sex ratio. When Westerners first arrived in Australia, they found 150 males to each 100 females. Female infanticide explains the imbalance. Hunter gatherers must be mobile; women are often encumbered by childcare and are not as swift as males. So you kill off female newborns. In Bad Dreaming, Australian playwright Louis Nowra quotes Aboriginal men citing traditional culture to justify their abuse of women and girls. Paternalistic, “liberal” white judges sometimes said the same thing – that Aboriginal men could not be prosecuted for child rape of Aboriginal girls because such rape was traditional in Aboriginal culture, and, thus, above criticism by Westerners.
Geologist Bowler lauds Aborigines deep, spiritual, connection to the cosmos and the land, a connection that he insists Westerners and scientists lack. The article does not mention that current research suggests that pre-contact Aboriginal burning may have increased desertification in Australia. The article lingers over the environmental damage white people caused by importing sheep. It brushes over the Aboriginal role in the extinction of Australian megafauna.
Scientific facts indicate that ancient Aborigines were every bit as calculating as any white man building a modern factory. They assessed their environment, tools, and abilities and chose behaviors that would lead to more calories in the short run. Ancient Aborigines harvested eggs of Genyornis newtoni, a large, flightless bird, and they ate those eggs till they drove that bird into extinction. That makes them human, just like Bowler, just like you or me. The dichotomy between spiritual, earth-friendly Aborigines and cold white men that anti-Western woke folk fantasize about does not exist.
In a Smithsonian photo, two lads, foreground, look sad. Their bare chests and faces are daubed with white pigment. Behind them stands a row of older guys, one of them sporting a paunch and man breasts. These men are also painted. Well, this must be the ancient spirituality Smithsonian told me about. Uh, oh. What’s this? Between these groups of males (no females) is a shiny hearse. Nothing ancient about the hearse. In fact internal combustion vehicles are products of Western science and technology. Perhaps Smithsonian is hoping we won’t think too hard about this, and will focus on the picturesque males in their ceremonial adornment.
Text informs us that the November, 2017 reburial of Mungo Man was “cinematic.” Towns the casket passed through have “sonorous” names. “Elders,” “activists” and “jubilant crowds” accompanied the casket. There was a celebratory “sausage sizzle,” or barbecue. An interesting footnote about those jubilant crowds. Photos on the web suggest that they were largely white (see here and here). These photos suggest that Smithsonian’s “Aborigine spirituality v white science” narrative is not entirely accurate.
These crowds, article author Tony Perrottet tells us, adopt a “reverent silence” when they spot the “ghostly vehicle.” “He would be cared for by his descendants … Like many indigenous groups, the tribes believe that a person’s spirit is doomed to wander the earth endlessly if his remains are not laid to rest ‘in country.'” Warren Clark, an Aborigine elder, said that the museum that had housed Mungo Man “Is not home for me. It’s not home for our ancestors. I’m sure their spirits won’t rest until they are buried back on our land. Our people have had enough. It’s time for them to go home.”
There are a couple of problems here. No one knows if Mungo Man had children. No one knows if any children survived to produce children of their own. About 20,000 years ago, an Ice Age hit Australian Aborigines very hard. Aborigines abandoned 80% of the land they inhabited and populations plummeted by 60%. It’s entirely possible that Mungo Man has no descendants. It’s also possible that Mungo Man, if he could be consulted, might be delighted that his bones rewrote history. My driver’s license identifies me as an organ donor, and another card in my wallet informs whomever handles my corpse that I would like the parts of me that can’t be recycled to be put to use in scientific research. How can we be sure that Mungo Man would not feel the same way?
We don’t give permission to anyone with European ancestry to dictate how Cro-Magnon remains are handled, and we don’t assume an intimate connection, never mind complete identification, between white people living today and skeletons thirty millennia old. Why apply a different standard to Aborigines? Does not this standard create a corporate identity, rather than an individual identity? An Aboriginal person, unlike a European, becomes “An Aborigine” rather than “Joe,” one person, with one person’s rights, privileges, and duties. Is this not the definition of racism? To strip an individual of selfhood, and to essentialize him under a blanket of unchanging stereotypes that are meant to define a group over the course of tens of thousands of years?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that “Among Indigenous people, 1% reported affiliation with an Australian Aboriginal traditional religion … 73% reported an affiliation with a Christian denomination.” If these numbers reflect actual belief, perhaps one percent of Aborigines believe that Mungo Man’s soul was in pain while his bones were in a museum. A good three quarters of Aborigines believe, with their fellow Christians, that Mungo Man’s soul has nothing to do with the fate of his bones, and that Mungo Man, if he was a decent enough fellow, is possibly in Heaven (See here and here).
“The Aboriginal people believe that they have lived in Australia since it was sung into existence during the Dreamtime.” Again, Perrottet, an educated, powerful white author from far away, chooses to depict Aborigines in the most exoticized terms possible. Yes, Australian myth does speak of Dreamtime. What percent of Aborigines believe this, not as poetry, but as actual fact?
Perrottet describes scientific study of human remains as a crime, and the abandonment of the study of human origins as a necessary route for whites to expiate for imperialist atrocities. “Bone collecting … [is] unethical.” Australia is now “a world leader in returning human remains as a form of apology for its tragic colonial history.” When Aborigines come to the National Museum of Australia’s Repatriation Unit, it is a “harrowing experience.” “To see the skulls of their ancestors with serial numbers written on them, holes drilled for DNA tests … They break down. They start crying.”
Perrottet wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He rejoices in that scientific work that is helpful to Aborigines. For example, archaeological study of Mungo Lady “destroyed the lingering 19th century racist notion, suggested by misguided followers of Charles Darwin, that Aboriginal people had evolved from a primitive Neanderthal-like species.”
Mungo Man’s discovery showed that Aboriginal culture was more complex than some might think. His burial suggests that Aborigines had complex thoughts about human souls, the afterlife, and that they engaged in trade for substances with purely symbolic value. The ocher that dusted his corpse came from over a hundred miles away. Perrottet brags that Mungo Man is 5,000 years older than the oldest Cro-Magnon sites in Europe.
A frequently mentioned “Aboriginal elder” who protested against the retention of Mungo Man is Mary Pappin. Pappin told Bowler that “Mungo Man and Mungo Lady. You didn’t find them. They found you.” “They had messages to deliver, such as telling white Australians that the time has come to acknowledge the injustices inflicted upon Aboriginal people.” Pappin liked science as long as it was telling her something that she wanted to hear.
Pappin isn’t even all that up on the basic facts. She incorrectly identifies Mungo Man as being 70,000 years old. And, and I’m not saying this to be catty, but Pappin plainly dyes her hair. It looks great, but hair dye, like one of the mourners’ paunches, is a product, not of the hunter-gatherer culture that Smithsonian presents triumphalistically. Hair dye, hearses, and supermarkets are all products of the very modern, Western science and technology that Smithsonian demonizes. Western science is okay when it gives you hair dye and enough calories that you can grow plump and you don’t have to kill off your baby daughters, but Western science is bad when it pursues research into human history? How convenient.
The left announces itself as Team Science, and the right as Team Anti-Science. But the left insists that a fetus is not human, “When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her,” claimed New York City politician Christine Quinn in May, 2019. Articles like “The Homecoming” remind us that the left is every bit as anti-science as it accuses the right of being.
This article is not, of course, alone. In March, 2019, Smithsonian ran “In Nigeria, the Veil Is a Fashion Statement. Artist Medina Dugger Finds Joy in A Colorful Yet Complicated Symbol of Faith.” The Mungo Man piece is about hard science; this one is about Islamic-mandated clothing. Both articles serve the same agenda. White Westerners are evil, bigoted, and oppressive. Non-whites and non-Western cultures are spiritual, superior, and misunderstood. If the reader has any misgivings about hijab, that is because he is ignorant.
The article is accompanied by photos that reduce Muslim women to faceless abstract designs. Hijabs swirl against colorful, patterned backgrounds, as faceless bodies float and jump in space. These photos of women with no faces “celebrate the veil’s creative possibilities” and show how hijab’s “aesthetic originality serves as a refreshing counterexample to the globalization of fashion.” No mention of Koran verses that indicate that unveiled, non-Muslim women are fair game for Muslim men to molest. No mention of women beaten, jailed, and killed for refusing to wear hijab. How woke.
Nor is the Smithsonian’s dedication to wokeness limited to articles. Front Page Magazine previously ran my piece discussing my visit to the Smithsonian’s controversial and unpopular National Museum of the American Indian.
Nor is the push to use the social and hard sciences to advance a woke agenda limited to the Smithsonian. Six years ago I tried, in good faith, to review a scholarly book. I agonized as I read Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present. In the book, a “humor scholar” self-identifies as Marxist. He says he encourages his Italian American family to add quinoa, a South American grain, to their diets. He regrets that his family members’ rejection of quinoa in Italian recipes might be an indication of xenophobia and racism against Hispanics. His encouragement that they eat quinoa shows that he “serves as a friend to a given community by calling it to more noble aspirations.” Another author in the anthology attacks the “hegemonic” Catholic Church. The same author, a full professor at a prestigious university, goes on to support Neo-Pagans’ false claim that they practice a tradition that goes back 35,000 years. This claim is nonsense. Neo-Paganism was a consciously invented commercial product, developed recently by eccentric Brits, Americans, and not a few Nazis, so that entrepreneurs could sell kitschy tchotchkes and windchimes. At least that’s what my crystals say. An author criticizing American football fans dressing in Native American costumes during games argues that such costumes “perpetuate white hegemony and promote cultural imperialism by seizing authority to speak for marginal traditions and then remaking them as dominant groups see fit…Violence remains violence. Insult remains insult.”
This book, these scholars, like the above mentioned museum and articles, all convey the same message: The West is bad. Western religion is bad. Non-Western peoples, cultures, and religions are superior.
I mentioned in my review that the Marxism espoused by the authors was responsible for the torture, dispossession and deaths of tens of millions of people, including some of my relatives. The editor called my review “petty and unscholarly.” He objected to my mentioning that Communism kills. He asked, “Does one have to mention all the bad things that happen in the world?”
The woke brigade would have us know that they are larding their scholarship with compassion as redress for wrongs committed by their ancestors. Rejection of Western science is inevitable, they say, because, well, people have suffered.
My living loved ones, and the parents of my friends, encountered invasion, enslavement, and medical experimentation. Rudolf Spanner made soap from Polish victims during WW II. “Ravensbruck rabbits” were Polish, Catholic, women prisoners who were subjected to twisted Nazi medical experimentation. They were called “rabbits” because they were nothing but animals to their tormentors. Dr. Klaus Schilling conducted murderous medical experiments on Polish Catholic priests at Dachau. In the US, eugenicists, including Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, argued for fertility suppression of undesirable immigrants like my parents. Franz Boas, the “Father of American Anthropology,” was commissioned by Congress to study Eastern European immigrant culture. He ignored our culture and spent time measuring 18,000 skulls for their “cephalic index.”
Why is there no Bowler or Smithsonian advising Poles to abandon science and rely on spirituality? Because Poles are Catholics. Polish suffering at the hands of bad scientists can’t be exploited to advance the anti-Western agenda of the woke, so it is discounted.
Yes, Aborigines have suffered horribly at the hands of white Australians. Yes, Aborigines today feel pain inherited from those crimes. The suicide rate of Aborigines was estimated in 2013 to be 2.6 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. Child abuse, including sexual abuse, is epidemic, as is alcoholism. Aborigines are three to four times more likely to contract type 2 diabetes than non-Aborigines, and they contract it at younger ages. Aborigines are incarcerated at the highest rate in the world. Videos on YouTube record heartbreaking scenes of suicidal youth, public drunkenness, public fights, and child abuse. Yes, decent people want to decrease suffering among Aborigines.
This is what the left gets wrong. It’s the old Mother Teresa v. Christopher Hitchens paradigm. Many of Mother Teresa’s critics bashed her for not changing the social circumstances that created suffering. Mother Teresa said that her vocation was to provide a decent place for the poor who had been abandoned in the street. I worked with the Sisters of Charity. I washed lice out of clothing. I did not change centuries of injustice. Someone whose clothes are full of lice is grateful when the lice are washed out of his clothing.
When I watch YouTube videos of frightened and traumatized Aboriginal children describing growing up with rampant violence, I don’t see exotic others. I see myself. My father was an alcoholic and my mother beat me. Yes, yes, I know all about my people’s proud moments and their history of suffering. That knowledge didn’t help me when I had to run out of the house and find a safe place to sleep. What helped? A roof, a bed, and privacy.
Kids at risk for diabetes don’t need a lecture about how connected to the cosmos their culture is. They need better food. Kids being beaten by their parents don’t need a lesson in either didgeridoo or fujara. They need a safe place to sleep. Elders being attacked by youngsters and complaining that they are “under siege” don’t need an end to science. They need law enforcement.
The people who reburied Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, robbing science of these priceless specimens, will not prevent one addicted Aborigine from drinking. They will not protect one Aboriginal child from abuse. They will not untie the knot in one self-administered noose.
The left sees people as collectives, and as histories of injustice. The proper way to see people is as individual human beings. The same approaches that treat alcoholism, child abuse, suicide, diabetes and recidivism in other populations will heal Aborigines. Jim Bowler shouldn’t have sacrificed Mungo Man. He should have driven a drunk to a 12 Step meeting. Mary Pappin shouldn’t be trashing science. She should be establishing safe foster homes for at-risk kids. Suicidal Aborigines need what all suicidal people need. A sense that they are loved and needed, and that the future offers hope.
I just received the October Smithsonian. There’s an article blaming George Washington for the French and Indian War, an article on how men steal women’s science prestige, and an article on a socialist uprising in Oklahoma. Stay woke, my friends.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery