A 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal site in Western Australia has just been obliterated to make way for further iron ore mining in the area.
The Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 rock shelter caves – two sites of huge cultural and historical significance – were destroyed in a blast with detonated explosives last weekend, a spokesperson for the mining company Rio Tinto told ABC News on May 26.
The two ancient shelters were found some 60 kilometers (37 miles) north-west of Mount Tom Price on the west Hamersley Plateau. According to Ngaarda Media, previous archaeological work has shown that the caves were first occupied by Aboriginal people over 46,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest inhabited caves on the plateau.
A 2014 excavation of the shelters revealed a treasure trove of significant artifacts dating back as far 28,000 years ago, including tools and sacred objects. Most amazing of all, the cave contained a 4,000-year-old lock of plaited human hair. Genetic analysis of the hair showed that the people who lived in these caves millennia ago are the direct ancestors of the present-day traditional owners of the area, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.
Given the importance of heritage in the culture of the PKKP people, the demolition of the caves is an unimaginable blow.
"It's terrible. And it's really emotional when you hear that the sites have been destroyed and the age of those sites and that the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people and the Pinikura people have got a direct connection to that site. That's where our ancestors occupied that country,” Burchell Hayes, a Director of PKKP Aboriginal Corporation and Kurrama Land Committee member told Ngaarda Radio.
“It's really, really hard to swallow that — it's no longer there".
Authorization for the demolition was granted by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 2013 in accordance with the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act, which was drafted to favor mining opportunities. The 48-year old Act has come under criticism for being outdated and insensitive to Aboriginal concerns. The Act states any activity that could destroy or disrupt any Aboriginal site must first apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee. However, there is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee and there’s no right of appeal against a committee decision.
Rito Tinto, the multinational mining company responsible for the destruction, has defended its actions. According to AFP, the company said in a statement: "In 2013, ministerial consent was granted to allow Rio Tinto to conduct activity at the Brockman 4 mine that would impact Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters. Rio Tinto has worked constructively together with the PKKP people on a range of heritage matters under the agreement and has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group."
The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is currently under review in an attempt to prevent situations like this from arising in the future.