MAC: Mines and Communities

46,000 years of Aboriginal Heritage bulldozered by Rio Tinto

Published by MAC on 2020-05-27
Source: National Native Title Council, The Guardian

While Corona Virus continues blighting Australia, in common with many other states, the country's most powerful mining company, omni-present Rio Tinto, continues operations virtually regardless.

Last weekend, in an outrageous act of of wilful destruction, it wiped out some 46,000 years of Aboriginal cultural history, in pursuit of iron ore mining, of which it is the world's second largest provider.

The National Native Title Council has responded with a militant  statement, decrying not only the company, but also the governments that rode roughshod over their own protective legislation, by failing to prevent the delinquent action.

Destruction of Aboriginal Heritage: We need to focus on reform

National Native Title Council media statement

27 May 2020

In response to the destruction of an Aboriginal heritage site by a mining company over the weekend in the Western Pilbara region, National Native Title Council’s Chief Executive Jamie Lowe stated:

“The destruction of this extremely significant heritage site is devastating and we stand with the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, in their grief at this incalculable loss of culture. Their ancestors have  protected these sites for tens of thousands of years and they should have been the decision makers about what happened to their heritage.”

“This was allowed by laws of the Western Australian and Commonwealth governments. The Commonwealth government has not provided any legislation to properly standardise protection of Aboriginal culture. To  ensure this doesn’t happen again we need to change the laws that permit such gross destruction. Across the country, Traditional Owners and mining companies often work in partnership but legislative reform is needed to ensure Traditional Owners have greater leverage and power during these negotiations particularly when it effects their culture.”

“More often than not, Traditional Owners are open to discussing economic development happening on their Country. But the destruction of a heritage site against their wishes is indicative of unjust laws. WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act is currently under review and we would call on the WA government to make these reforms a matter of priority. We also call on the Commonwealth government to nationalise Aboriginal heritage protection standards. For once these heritage sites are gone, they are gone forever.”

- ENDS -

Note: NNTC CEO Jamie Lowe is a Djabwurrung/Gundjitmara man and an elected representative on the First Peoples Assembly of Victoria.

For interviews or more information please contact Megan Giles: 0433 028 567 or

Rio Tinto blasts 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site to expand iron ore mine

Mining company was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge cave, which
provided a 4,000-year-old genetic link to present-day traditional owners

Calla Wahlquist

The Guardian

26 May 2020

A sacred site in Western Australia that showed 46,000 years of
continual occupation and provided a 4,000-year-old genetic link to
present-day traditional owners has been destroyed in the expansion of
an iron ore mine.

The cave in Juukan Gorge the Hammersley Ranges, about 60km from Mt Tom
Price, is one of the oldest in the western Pilbara region and the only
inland site in Australia to show signs of continual human occupation
through the last ice age. It was blasted along with another sacred
site on Sunday.

Mining company Rio Tinto received ministerial consent to destroy or
damage the site in 2013 under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws,
which were drafted in 1972 to favour mining proponents.

One year after consent was granted, an archeological dig intended to
salvage whatever could be saved discovered the site was more than
twice as old as previously thought and rich in artefacts, including
sacred objects.

Most precious was a 4,000-year-old length of plaited human hair, woven
together from strands from the heads of several different people,
which DNA testing revealed were the direct ancestors of Puutu Kunti
Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners living today.

But the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act does not allow for a consent
to be renegotiated on the basis of new information. So despite regular
meetings with Rio Tinto, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP)
Aboriginal Corporation was unable to stop the blast from going ahead.

 “It’s one of the most sacred sites in the Pilbara region … we wanted
to have that area protected,” PKKP director Burchall Hayes told
Guardian Australia.

“It is precious to have something like that plaited hair, found on our
country, and then have further testing link it back to the Kurrama
people. It’s something to be proud of, but it’s also sad. Its resting
place for 4,000 years is no longer there.”

Hayes said the site had been used as a campsite by Kurrama moving
through the area, including in the memory of some elders.

“We want to do the same, we want to show the next generation,” he
said. “Now, if this site has been destroyed, then we can tell them
stories but we can’t show them photographs or take them out there to
stand at the rock shelter and say: this is where your ancestors lived,
starting 46,000 years ago.”

The Aboriginal Heritage Act has been up for review, in some form,
since 2012. Draft legislation put forward by the former Liberal
government in 2014 was rejected after even a National party MP argued
it was unfair to traditional owners and did not allow for adequate

Re-writing the act was listed as a priority for Labor before their
election win in 2017, and last month Aboriginal affairs minister Ben
Wyatt pushed back the final consultation on his draft bill until later
this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new legislation will provide options to appeal or amend agreements
to allow for the destruction of heritage sites, Wyatt said. He wasn’t
aware of the risk to the Juukan site, or its destruction, until Monday.

“It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and
proponents to include a process to consider new information that may
come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the
agreements by mutual consent,” he said. “The legislation will also
provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with
the agreement.”

In its submission to the legislative review, Rio Tinto said it was
broadly supportive of the proposed reform but that consent orders
granted under the current system should be carried over, and that
rights of appeal should be fixed, not broad or subject to extensions,
lest it “prolong approvals or appeals processes at a critical point in
the project.”

A spokesman from Rio Tinto said the company had a relationship with
the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people dating back three decades,
“and we have been working together in relation to the Juukan area over
the past 17 years”.

“Rio Tinto has worked constructively together with the PKKP People on
a range of heritage matters and has, where practicable, modified its
operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural
significance to the group,” the company said.

The mining company signed a native title agreement with the
traditional owners in 2011, four years before their native title claim
received formal assent by the federal court. They facilitated the
salvage dig in 2014, which uncovered the true age of the site.

Archeologist Dr Michael Slack, who led that dig, said it was a
once-in-a-lifetime discovery.

An earlier 1 metre test dig, conducted in 2008, dated the site at
about 20,000 years old, but the salvage expedition uncovered a “very
significant site” with more than 7,000 artefacts collected, including
grid stones that were 40,000 years old, thousands of bones from
middens which showed changes in fauna as the climate changed, and
sacred objects.

The flat floor of the cave allowed for a significant depth of soil and
sand to build up, creating a layer almost two metres deep in parts.
Most archeological digs in the Pilbara hit rock at 30cm.

Most significantly, the archeological records did not disappear during
the last ice age. Most inland archeological sites in Australia show
that people moved away during the ice age between 23,000 and 19,000
years ago, as the country dried up and water sources dried up.
Archeological evidence from Juukan Gorge suggest it was occupied

“It was the sort of site you do not get very often, you could have
worked there for years,” he said. “How significant does something have
to be, to be valued by wider society?” he said.

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