SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: May 26, 2020

SNIP: 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 in 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Mining company Rio Tinto received ministerial consent to destroy or damage the site in 2013 under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws, which were drafted in 1972 to favour mining proponents.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But the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act does not allow for a consent to be renegotiated on the basis of new information.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.

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.

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 throughout.

“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.