An Australian Aboriginal group has accused mining giant Rio Tinto of trashing hundreds of irreplaceable cultural artifacts that date as far back as the Ice Age. They also allege the multinational mining corporation chucked ancient material from Indigenous sites in the garbage, all while keeping the traditional Aboriginal owners in the dark about their lands’ destruction.
The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) says Eastern Guruma elders have found documents that describe the “accidental, and then deliberate discarding and destruction” of culturally important relics by Rio Tinto in the iron ore-rich Pilbara region of Western Australia. As the Guardian reports, the accusations were made in a submission to the Australian Parliament on Friday, June 25.
The Indigenous group argues material from 20 of 28 sites used by the Eastern Guruma, including an 18,000-year-old Ice Age rock shelter, was salvaged and then destroyed during work at the Marandoo iron ore mine in the mid-1990s. Much of this material was improperly discarded with Rio Tinto’s approval without the knowledge of the traditional owners in the few years following. They even allege material from the 20 sites had been chucked away with little to no care at a trash heap in Darwin.
“So little was the respect for either the state’s conditions, or for the cultural heritage that was destroyed on a massive scale, hundreds of Eastern Guruma cultural artifacts ended up in the bin. It is WGAC’s view that the accidental, and then deliberate, discarding and destruction of Eastern Guruma cultural material was never disclosed to the Eastern Guruma people,” the WGAC said in a statement, per the Guardian.
“It is a secret that has been kept by Hamersley Iron [a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto] and the government for some 25 years.”
Even beyond the inexpressible cultural importance of the destroyed artifacts, much of this material also holds a huge amount of archaeological significance and could potentially have provided insights into how ancient Aboriginal people lived during the last Ice Age.
Rio Tinto made the headlines in 2020 after it blew up 46,000-year-old rock shelters considered sacred to Indigenous people in Western Australia. The event sparked widespread outrage and fostered a huge amount of criticism towards Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining company in the world. In response, the company replaced many of its top executives and promised to improve its heritage protection practices. However, as this recent accusation highlights, many stories from the dark history of Australia's mining operations are only just coming to light.
In a new statement, seen by Reuters, Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott responded to the latest accusations: "We’re not proud of many parts of our history at Marandoo and we reiterate our apology to the Traditional Owners of the land, the Eastern Guruma People, for our past actions. We know we have a lot of work ahead to right some of these historical wrongs, which fell well short of the standards we expect today."