Mining Company Destroys 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Grounds in Australia

report says miners broke no laws while causing the destruction of artifact site

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Rio Tinto’s CEO will resign amid backlash for blowing up an Aboriginal site, NPR reported. The mining company made no effort to slow its operation in the area, despite finding ancient artifacts and even human hair in 2014. The area was settled by humans just 3,000 years earlier.

Australia map on globe
A mining company destroyed a sacred Aboriginal site that carried archaeological and cultural significance going back 3,000 years. Photo By TRossJones / Shutterstock

According to NPR, a fervent response by the public to a mining company’s destruction of a historical site was heard loud and clear. “Mining giant Rio Tinto is parting ways with its chief executive as it tries to quell public anger over the company’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Australia,” the article read.

“In May, the company blasted through two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in order to mine iron ore. Evidence of human habitation there dates back tens of millennia.”

In fact, it’s believed that the supercontinent Suhal, of which Australia used to be a part, was first settled about 49,000 years ago. Comparatively speaking, the Juukan Gorge sites date back to a very early point in its history.

The Earliest Aussies

“During the last Ice Age, the Australian mainland was joined to the large islands of Tasmania in the south and New Guinea in the north, in a mega-island continent known as Sahul,” said Dr. Craig G. Benjamin, Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University.

“Sahul was colonized by maritime peoples from Southeast Asia at least 50,000 years ago. They used watercraft to cross wide bodies of water when Ice Age sea levels were at least 150 feet lower than present.”

Dr. Benjamin said that somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years after their arrival, humans lived in all of Sahul’s sustainable environments. The earliest evidence of humans living in Sahul comes from Papua New Guinea, where charcoal that was found with hunting tools was carbon dated back to 49,000 years ago. This earliest, solidly dateable evidence was found in the Ivane Valley, which Dr. Benjamin said is near the modern coastal city of Port Moresby.

Adaptable Aborigines

Between then and now, the Aboriginal people of Sahul—and, later, the separate islands of the Australian region—made their mark.

“They had proven themselves remarkably adaptable to these new ecological niches, and also adept at making numerous innovations in response to ongoing climate change,” Dr. Benjamin said. “Evidence of these adaptations can be found in rock art dating to between 30,000 and 20,000 years ago. It reveals lifeways that were later forced to change profoundly in response to climatic changes. In the far northern region of Arnhem land, for example, the artists depicted the food they ate in their time, including yams and marsupials.”

Dr. Benjamin said that later, as rising sea levels changed the climate, fish and turtles are featured in the artwork.

On the subject of food, the region took another big step 10,000 years ago—with some dietary staples that were developed as agricultural advances were learned.

“By 10,000 years ago, agriculture had emerged independently in some highland communities of Papua New Guinea, where farmers had learned to domesticate yams and taro using swidden or slash-and-burn techniques,” Dr. Benjamin said. “By 7,000 years ago, cultivation had intensified; farming communities were constructing artificial mounds and drainage channels in conjunction with ongoing swidden and the cultivation of grasslands.

“These constructions imply the appearance of hierarchies and new forms of leadership to facilitate larger-scale farming of taro, bananas, yams, sugarcane, and sweet potato.”

The perseverance and adaptability of Aborigines in the Australian region of the Earth have been proven by countless ancient artifacts dating back nearly 50,000 years. It’s little wonder that the destruction of an early sacred site has caused such backlash.

Image of Professor Craig Benjamin, Ph.D.

Dr. Craig G. Benjamin contributed to this article. Dr. Benjamin is Associate Professor of History in the Frederik Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), where he teaches East Asian civilization, big history, ancient Central Asian history, and historiography. He earned his undergraduate education at The Australian National University in Canberra and Macquarie University in Sydney, and his PhD in Ancient History from Macquarie University.