Carved gently into the Hamersley Ranges in Western Australia’s Pilbara Region, runs Juukan Gorge. It’s a place with an ancient human history, a place that’s held signs and stories of the world’s oldest living culture for more than 46,000 years.
In 2014, archeological excavations of rock shelters there found several Aboriginal artefacts, including grinding and pounding stones, a 28,000-year-old marsupial bone tool and a 4,000-year-old belt made from plaited human hair — hair that belonged to the ancestors of today’s Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners.
On Sunday, a series of quick-fire booms echoed through this sacred place, as mining giant Rio Tinto detonated strategically placed charges at its Brockman 4 mine.
Within seconds, the Juukan 1 and 2 shelters were destroyed; rattled by a company that sees the place’s richness not in its ancient story, but in the deposits of iron ore that run beneath the rust-red soil.
Rio Tinto confessed to damaging this site of great significance on a day of great significance — Sorry Day. Held annually on May 26, Sorry Day falls during Reconciliation Week and acknowledges the strength of survivors of the Stolen Generations.
This particular Reconciliation Week marks 20 years since more than 200,000 people marched across Sydney Harbour Bridge calling for a treaty that would formally recognise the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their ancient connection with this land.
Yet here we are, watching on as it is, once again, undermined.
In a statement issued to media on Tuesday, Rio Tinto said it had “worked constructively” with traditional owners on a range of heritage matters and “has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group”.
Sadly, what Rio Tinto did was entirely legal.
In 2013, the former Barnett state government granted the company ministerial approval to excavate in the area in accordance with Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972).