Vale Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney

22 September 2016

He was a person who treated Indigenous people as people and not just study subjects.

The University is saddened by the death of Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney, who was one of Australia's greatest archaeologists and the founding professor of the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology. He was 90.

Born in Victoria in 1925, Professor Mulvaney joined ANU in 1965 and was Professor of Prehistory in the Faculty of Arts from 1971 to 1985. He took early retirement and became Honorary Secretary of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Chair of the ACT Heritage Committee.

He wrote extensively on Australian history and prehistory and during his career he became an authority on Australian prehistory and the history of the first Australians.

In 1965 Professor Mulvaney helped discover 5,000 year old Aboriginal sites on the Murray River in South Australia, where he discovered Tasmanian devil remains and dingo bones.

Shortly after at Kenniff Cave in south-central Queensland, Professor Mulvaney and his team discovered human occupation in the area which dated back 16,000 years.

Professor Mulvaney was also involved in the archaeological discovery of charcoal and burnt bones dating back 26,000 years at Lake Mungo, which was considered the earliest evidence for human cremation.

During his career, Professor Mulvaney was an active campaigner for the protection of Indigenous and historic sites and artefacts.

Emeritus Professor Colin Groves, who was hired by Professor Mulvaney, said he helped to bring reconciliation between archaeologists, biological anthropologists and the Indigenous community.

"He was a person who treated Indigenous people as people and not just study subjects," Professor Groves said.

"He first of all enormously increased the self-confidence of all Indigenous people by his discoveries, his demonstration that their occupation of the continent had not been a few hundred years or perhaps a couple of thousand years as had been assumed then but then eventually we now think about 40, maybe 50,000 years."

Professor Groves said these discoveries gave Indigenous people increased confidence in their own history.

Professor Mulvaney was the foundation professor of the Department of Pre-history, in what is now called the School of Archaeology and Anthropology.

"He felt the ANU should have a genuine teaching department of anthropology in the broad sense, and there were already a few departments in Australia teaching in what we called social and cultural anthropology," Professor Groves said.

Professor Groves said the Departments of Anthropology in the UK and America had three different streams.

"Socio-cultural anthropology, archaeology, and also biological anthropology or physical anthropology as it was called back then and he thought Australia should have one of them so he recruited me as the first biological anthropologist to come to ANU to expand the horizons of his new department."

Professor Groves said he would remember Professor Mulvaney as being popular amongst students and for his "relaxed personal attitude and his very firm grip on affairs at the ANU and in particularly in his department."