Mining Company Rio Tinto Blows Up 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Sacred Caves In Western Australia

by : Cameron Frew on : 29 May 2020 14:48
Mining Company Rio Tinto Blows Up 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Sacred Caves In Western AustraliaShutterstock

Aborigines in Western Australia are mourning the loss of their history after 46,000-year-old sacred caves were obliterated by a mining company. 

Earlier this week as part of expansions to its iron ore mining operation, Rio Tinto took explosives to Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 – ancient rock shelters of ‘staggering’ significance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) traditional owners in the western Pilbara.


While the company says it ‘has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group’, the lack of statutory requirement for consolation with the owners led to the blast taking place without much alarm over the risk to artifacts.

Juukan GorgePuutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

John Ashburton, chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee, told ABC News that while the group appreciates the mining group acted within the constraints of the law, they’re ‘gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system’ that enabled the destruction of the caves.

Ashburton explained: 


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.

Rio Tinto was granted permission to conduct the blasts under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, legislation that is currently under review amid concerns over the lack of synergy between the wishes of traditional owners versus the proponents, with particular regards to scenarios like the Juukan Gorge.

Juukan Gorge 2Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

Burchell Hayes, one Puutu Kunti Kurruma traditional owner, said he only discovered the company’s plans when the group asked to visit for upcoming NAIDOC week celebrations. This, he says, is indicative of the need for better communication between parties.


Hayes said: 

It saddens us that something that we have got a deep connection to has been destroyed. That site, for us, that’s where our ancestors were occupying their traditional land. From generation to generation stories have been passed down to us around that occupation.

Traditionally we hand that [heritage] down to the next generation, but in this case we won’t have anything to show the next generation and to tell them stories about what has happened there and what’s been passed down from our ancestors.

In 2014, just a year after Rio Tinto’s plans were approved, an excavation took place at Juukan Gorge revealing items and sites of ‘high archaeological significance’. These included the likes of plaited hair dating back 4,000 years and a 28,000-year-old kangaroo bone sharpened into a tool. However, blast approval couldn’t be reversed.

Aboriginal heritage site sign, Pilbara, Western AustraliaPA Images

Dr Michael Slack, an archaeologist who worked in the caves, said it was ‘a bit upsetting to hear about a fantastic cultural site being lost’, one so rich with cultural discoveries that it’s ‘one of those sites you only excavate once or twice in your career’.

Slack added that he, other colleagues and traditional owners who ‘slogged it out for weeks and weeks, and sweated down the bottom of that pit’ are now thinking: ‘Wow that’s just sad really. Unfortunate.’

According to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt, new legislation around heritage protection will ‘provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with the agreement’.

Aboriginal heritage site signPA Images

Hayes added: ‘We can’t undo what’s already happened, but what we can do is try and go back to Rio Tinto and talk to them on how we can protect the remaining sites in that area.’

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill will be put forward in the Parliament of Western Australia for consideration at some point later this year.

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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: News, Archaeology, Australia, history, Now


ABC News
  1. ABC News

    Pilbara mining blast confirmed to have destroyed 46,000yo sites of 'staggering' significance