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Extraordinary finds at Juukan Gorge to be revealed at international conference

Giovanni Torre -

Representatives of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation will this week use an international conference to reveal significant findings, including the tooth of a Tasmanian Devil, during the re-excavation of the Juukan-2 rock shelter, which was destroyed in May 2020 during blasting at the Rio Tinto Brockman 4 mine.

The presentation to the Society for American Archaeology conference in New Orleans on Saturday morning local time will be the first public announcement about the excavation project's interim results.

The excavation has been underway for almost two years and while the effects of the blast were devastating, the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation noted on Tuesday that the announcement "demonstrates that the hard work put in by the Traditional Owners and their supporters has paid off".

Among the new finds are several more pieces of braided human hair; the Tasmanian Devil tooth; a shell bead; quartz artefacts held together by resin; and several backed artefacts — special stone artefacts that are crescent-shaped.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) Land Committee chairperson, Burchell Hayes, said since the destruction of Juukan Gorge, the PKK community had requested a number of outcomes to remediate such a special place, and to help rebuild a relationship with Rio Tinto "to ensure it never happens again".

"One of those outcomes was the archaeological excavation of the remaining cultural deposit at Juukan 2. The finds that we will present at the conference further demonstrate the extreme cultural and scientific significance of Juukan Gorge," he said.

"I am proud that our requirements have led to these significant discoveries, which have the potential to rewrite what we know about the deep past of the Pilbara."

The results complement the finds from the 2008 and 2014 excavations, being a length of braided human hair, which was dated to ~5,000 years before present, and DNA tested to demonstrate a genetic link between the sample and Aboriginal people living in the Pilbara today; a kangaroo bone sharpened into a point; and thousands of other significant cultural material such as stone artefacts and faunal remains.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama Traditional Owner and Lead Excavation Specialist Terry Hayes said the new finds showed the place is very important.

"I'm glad that we've been able to get in here and reclaim the site so we could find this amazing material. It's been a hard road since 2020, but now that we've made this progress, it feels like we've moved to the next step, Mr Hayes said."

Associate Professor Michael Slack, the Excavation Director, described the excavated material as "mind-blowing".

"Some of the individual items we have excavated are enough to make a site highly significant in themselves. The fact we have a collection of these items all from one small part of the planned excavation demonstrates what the PKK people have been saying all along – that this is a very special and important place," he said.

"Take the tooth of the Tasmanian Devil for example. There is no previous physical evidence that they even lived in the Pilbara, and the last evidence there is of Devils living in WA was in the southwest around 3,000 years ago.

"We excavated a really diverse range of artefacts in 2014 and we have added more rare artefacts to the assemblage through this excavation, like the shell bead. Finding this is proof that people living here visited or traded with people living on the coast hundreds of kilometres away," Professor Slack said.

PKKP Aboriginal Corporation Director of Land and Heritage Management, Dr Jordan Ralph, said since May 2020, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama community had been clear about what they required as remediation for the destruction that occurred.

"Collectively, we have had to do a lot of work to remove the blasted overburden from the site, as well as the boulders that once formed the roof and walls of the rock shelter. We weren't sure how extensive the damage was until we got to work. While the structure of the rock shelter was destroyed, it is pleasing to see the archaeological deposit is largely intact and was spared any major disturbance by the blast.

"The nature of the project has meant we've had to put some measures in place to ensure personnel safety. We have also had to have a marquee constructed at the site to protect the team from the elements, and we have also had a lab and battery array installed to make sure we are dealing with the material in proper lab conditions.

"The findings we are reporting at the SAA conference in New Orleans are a clear demonstration that the PKKP's co-management processes are working for the benefit of the PKKP community,"Dr Ralph said.

To date, the re-excavation has focussed on around a quarter of the rock shelter floor in an area that was not previously excavated. The project is planned to take at least another 12 months, with analysis of all results to follow.

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