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Ancient Pilbara rock shelters destroyed
Wednesday 27 May 2020

An article by Michelle Stanley and Kelly Gudgeon on abc.net.au - Pilbara mining blast confirmed to have destroyed 46,000 year-old sites of 'staggering' significance - reports on the recent destruction of ancient rock shelters in Pilbara in the north of Western Australia.

Pilbara mining blast sites destruction ancient rock shelters Juukan Australia
Juukan Gorge (left) sits about 60km north-west of the remote Pilbara mining town of Tom Price. Image: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation. Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 (right) under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Image: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation.

"Deeply troubled" traditional owners in the western Pilbara have had their worst fears confirmed after Rio Tinto detonated explosives near culturally significant sites dating back more than 46,000 years. Rio Tinto has confirmed the gorge's ancient rock shelters were destroyed in blasting over the weekend. Permission was signed off in 2013 and was known to "impact Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters". In 2014, an archaeologist found several "staggering" artefacts believed to be the earliest use of grindstone technology in Western Australia.

A Rio Tinto spokesperson stated that "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. has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group." Rio Tinto received permission to conduct the blasts in 2013 under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act. Rio Tinto's spokesperson said the company had a long-standing relationship with the PKK people, and had been working together in relation to the Juukan area for 17 years.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) traditional owners said the mining giant had detonated charges in an area of the Juukan Gorge, about 60 kilometres north-west of Tom Price, and feared two ancient, deep time rock shelters would be "decimated" in the blasts. John Ashburton, chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee, explains that "Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land. Losing these rock shelters is a devastating blow to the PKK traditional owners."

Mr Ashburton said PKK traditional owners were frustrated by a system which they say does not consider new, important information once the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs gives consent under Section 18. "We recognise that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system," Mr Ashburton said.

In a statement, WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, said he was not aware of the blast or concerns prior to the event. Burchell Hayes, a Puutu Kunti Kurruma traditional owner, said the group was told the site would be impacted after it asked to visit for upcoming NAIDOC week celebrations. "While we would like to think we have got a good relationship with Rio Tinto, I think there is area for improvement and one of those is communication between the traditional owners and Rio Tinto," he said. Mr Hayes said the blasting activity was just 11 metres from the two rock shelters. "That site, for us, that's where our ancestors were occupying their traditional land," he explains. "From generation to generation stories have been passed down to us around that occupation. Even going through and doing excavations in those areas; to find the plaited hair and the artefacts and how they have been dated back to over 46,000 years — it's something we will always remember."

During an excavation in 2014, archaeologist Dr Michael Slack found several "staggering" artefacts including grinding and pounding stones, which were believed to be the earliest use of grindstone technology in Western Australia. The research revealed sites of "high archaeological significance", but due to what PKK traditional owners have described as a "rigid regulatory system" the decision was not able to be turned around.

Dr Slack said he was surprised when he heard the news of Rio Tinto's blast at the site. He said plaited hair dating back 4,000 years was also recovered, believed to be part of a hair belt worn by traditional owners, and a kangaroo leg bone dating back 28,000 years which had been sharpened into a pointed tool — the oldest examples of bone technology found in Australia. The findings from Dr Slack and the team had dated human occupation in the region back more than four times what was originally understood: "What we found were some really important discoveries. We found early backed artefacts which were a little stone tool we think were halved into knives, and they appear in this site up to 10,000 years earlier than in other sites. This site was something special. It was a massive cave, it had such a rich cultural deposit, such an old occupation. And so significant in that respect that it's one of those sites you only excavate once or twice in your career."

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill will be introduced into the WA Parliament for consideration this year. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said the new heritage legislation would focus on mutual agreement between traditional owners and proponents. "It will 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. The legislation will also provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with the agreement."

Dr Slack adds "Hopefully we can rectify the situation in revised legislation, and there should be a process where things are only destroyed with full knowledge and that we know the results of all these excavations in advance of all these consents 'to destroy' being approved. This is not an unusual situation, it's just unusual that the site has proven to be so importantly archaeologically and culturally as well."

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