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Mining company blasts through 46,000-year-old cultural site in Australia

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Mining company blasts through 46,000-year-old cultural site in Australia

Juukan Gorge as it appeared on May 15, 2020, after mining activity but before blasting had occurred. (Courtesy Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation)

Multinational iron ore mining company Rio Tinto is under fire for blasting through a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cultural site in Western Australia last month—especially since the company reportedly knew about the cave dwellings’ significance as far back as 2014.

On May 24, Rio Tinto, in trying to expand their Brockman 4 iron ore mine in the Pilbara region, destroyed two cave systems, Juukan 1 and 2, that showed evidence of continual human habitation dating back 46,000 years. The site’s owners, the indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples, reportedly only learned of the demolition on May 15; it was allowed to move ahead as an agreement had already been signed in 2013, one year before an archeological survey to the area was conducted.

What did that survey find? Archeologists reportedly recovered over 7,000 high-quality artifacts, including tools, grinding stones, and 4,000-year-old pleated hair braids that genetic testing linked to still-living Aboriginal peoples. Still, despite the discovery that the Juukan Gorge dwellings were more culturally, historically, and scientifically important than first thought, the demolition was still allowed to proceed under the Aboriginal Heritage Act. In 2013, Rio Tinto secured a permit based on the premise that the caves were of low historic value, and following the provisions set out by the act, were thus free from legal culpability for “excavating, destroying, damaging, concealing or in any way altering any Aboriginal site.”

Rio Tinto also remains in possession of the items recovered in 2014, and in 2016, even put out a documentary laying out PKKP concerns over the area’s preservation, somewhat undermining the company’s claim that this was unavoidable. The results of the final archeological report were never made public until summaries were recently provided to the press.

The chief executive of Rio Tinto iron ore, Chris Salisbury, apologized in an interview with Radio National this morning, calling it a “misunderstanding,” but as ABC News pointed out, the company knew the caves likely had archeological significance as far back as December of 2008.

For their part, the PKKP reportedly tried to stop the destruction but were told by Rio Tinto that the explosives had already been laid and that it was too late.