View of Jacob Nayinggul's country, Western Arnhem Land. Photo by Martin Thomas.

View of Jacob Nayinggul's country, Western Arnhem Land. Photo by Martin Thomas.

Back to their land

A new film examines the debate about the return of Indigenous remains. Adam Spence reports.

It’s 1948. In a cave in the remote Arnhem Land of northern Australia, a man reaches into a crevice. From it he retrieves bones.

They are the bones of those departed, the remains of those for whom Gunbalanya, an Indigenous community in western Arnhem Land, is home.

Prepared according to tradition, they had been laid to rest in the darkness of the cave, never to be disturbed.

But now the darkness had been disturbed and the bones taken far from their native lands. They would not return to those lands for almost 70 years.

The fascinating story about how these remains were taken and the controversy surrounding their return sparked the interest of cultural historian Martin Thomas, Associate Professor with the ANU School of History. Now he and Beatrice Bijon, Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre, with the cooperation of traditional owners, reveal this story and the journey home of the remains in the new film, Etched in Bone.

It was a desire to repatriate anthropological research, particularly film and sound recordings and return them to Indigenous communities, that introduced Thomas to the story of these bones.