The Juukan rock cave site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region was among the oldest in Australia and held material evidence of continuous human habitation stretching back 46,000 years.
In a 2014 report, Archaeologist Dr Michael Slack identified at least one of the Juukan caves contained “a cultural sequence spanning over 40,000 years, with a high frequency of flaked stone artefacts, rare abundance of faunal remains, unique stone tools, preserved human hair and with sediment containing a pollen record charting thousands of years of environmental changes”.
At least one of the caves was considered to be of “the highest archaeological significance in Australia”.
A rock engraving from Juukan Gorge, estimated to be 5,000 years old, depicting a Dugong – source: ABCTwo weeks ago, the site was destroyed in Rio Tinto’s $15 billion expansion of its Pilbara mine.
The mining giant was made aware of the significance of the site at least six years ago and even funded a documentary, ‘Ngurra Minarli’ (‘In Our Country’) in which the traditional owners of the region – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples – expressed concern about protecting the remaining cultural sites in the area, including the Juukan caves.
Despite strong evidence suggesting that Rio Tinto was fully aware of the cultural and historical significance of the caves, Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto, claimed that the destruction was a ‘misunderstanding’.
While criticism has been levelled at Rio Tinto from the Indigenous community as well as anthropologists, the expansion into the Aboriginal site was conducted legally under Western Australia’s controversial Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act. The Act allows for the destruction of Indigenous sites if given consent by the Western Australian government, and disregarding any new evidence regarding the cultural and historical importance of sites slated for demolition.
Rio Tinto received permission for the Pilbara expansion in 2013. The grant provoked a seven-year legal battle between the traditional owners of the land and Rio Tinto, which the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura ultimately lost on 15 May 2020 when the caves were blasted.