Ancient artefacts recently recovered from rock shelters in the Pilbara are challenging our understanding of the history of human habitation in Australia.
Recent archaeological finds on Eastern Guruma country in the Pilbara raise questions about previously accepted theories on the early occupation of inland Australia 40,000 years ago and the migration of people during the last Ice Age.
In the last two years, three rock shelters have been discovered near Tom Price in the Pilbara that all show occupation around 40,000 years ago and are considered by experts to be of very high archeological significance.
The most recent rock shelter in the Brockman Ranges measures 13m wide by 7m deep and has a ceiling height of up to 4m. A single test pit of 1m x 1m was excavated to a depth of 40cm, with 55 stone artefacts being recovered. The large amount of material recovered is considered unusual and worthy of further investigation. There is also the potential for rare raw materials and formal tools to exist within the buried deposit.
Mining operations are currently within 250m of the site and pose a potential risk to site integrity due to dust, vibration and blast proximity.
There are only a small number of archeological sites dating back to over 35,000 years in Western Australia. As such these recent sites are of rare antiquity and have the potential to provide new information on the occupation, subsistence patterns and cultural landscapes of Indigenous people.
All of the sites were considered to meet the requirements of an Aboriginal site under the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972).
Unfortunately, one of these very significant sites has already been destroyed and there are plans by one of the big iron-ore miners for the other two sites to be mined also.
Under the current State Government processes, approval will no doubt eventually be given by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to destroy the two remaining sites. The current system is weighted very much in favour of the miners. Once this approval is granted the scientists will go in and study the rest of the material in the shelter and salvage what is deemed to be significant.
Further carbon dating will be undertaken to confirm the antiquity and significance of the site, and then the site will be blown up and destroyed.
Sadly, we seem to be missing the point. These very significant sites represent our history. The history and culture of Australia’s first people – the oldest continuing culture on the planet. Once destroyed they are gone forever – we can’t bring them back.
In 20, 30 or 40 years’ time when the Hamersley region in the Pilbara is littered with big holes in the ground and we have destroyed all of our First People’s history and culture, we will look back and realise how short sighted we were. Sacrificing our history, culture and a sense of place for the short-term profit of the mining companies.
It is not just about studying it before it is dug up. History should not just be read about.
We need to preserve our history. We need to keep these sites intact so that all Australians can see it, feel it and appreciate it.
For Aboriginal Australians it is particularly important that they protect their culture. The country and connection to it is critical to our First People maintaining their cultural identity. The dominant white culture has destroyed so much of the Aboriginal culture. The destruction should not be allowed to continue when it is not necessary.
There is more than enough iron ore in the Pilbara for the mining companies and their shareholders. There are billions of tonnes of the stuff.
Mining can occur in a sustainable manner that protects our heritage. Mine plans can be changed for those sites that are deemed to be rare and very significant.
The large mining companies spend a great deal of money promoting their community bona fides and their contribution to the wider Australian community. However, community expectation about corporate responsibility does change over time. What was considered appropriate in terms of a return to the Australian community from the large mining companies back in the 60’s and 70’s is different today.
The bar becomes higher over time.
We are talking about the mining companies’ Social Licence to Operate. It is up to the Australian community to let the mining companies know what the current expectations are.
The Australian public needs to let the politicians and the mining companies know that they expect more from them.
It seems illogical that in our cities and towns we make developers preserve building facades that are a mere 100 years old and yet we don’t mind destroying a 40,000-year-old ancient site deemed to be of significant scientific and cultural value. Would we be as complacent if the pyramids of Egypt were destroyed—these are only 4,500 years old in comparison.
Surely preserving the history and culture of the First Australians is one of the criteria that we should judge ourselves by as a society. We can’t keep on destroying significant ancient historical sites.
When are we going to say enough is enough?
Tony Bevan is a non-member director of Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, based in Karratha, WA.