An archaeologist who works with Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners has called the destruction and loss of cultural heritage materials by Rio Tinto a heartbreaking setback for science.

Dr Kathryn Przywolnik is the Heritage Manager at Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, the organisation that recently lodged the explosive submission to the Juukan Gorge inquiry exposing the alleged disposal of heritage material from Rio Tinto’s Marandoo operation at the Darwin rubbish tip. 

“It means that we’re losing not just the material culture itself, the objects and the artefacts that people have left behind, but we also lose all of the other remaining evidence that we can use to piece together how people lived during that time — what they were doing, how they related to the environment around them and to each other, all that has been lost as well,” Dr Przywolnik told NIT.

Marandoo is now a mine site, with the caves and overhangs that housed Indigenous artefacts destroyed in the 1990s to make way for bulldozers and drilling rigs.

But to the Eastern Guruma people, it’s the place where Creation started and all Creation is regenerated.

Marandoo is located on the southern flanks of Punurunha, now known as Mt Bruce. For Eastern Guruma people and neighbouring Aboriginal groups, sacred Law flows from Punurunha and the Songlines are stored in that part of Country.

It’s a belief that has been part of the Eastern Guruma people for many millennia, and of the archaeological testing undertaken at Manganese Gorge in the Marandoo area, one site contained evidence of human habitation dating back 18,000 years.

Other well-known archaeological marvels are young by comparison; the oldest standing stones at Stonehenge may be up to 10,500 years old and the Great Pyramid at Giza only 4,500.

In mid-January of 1992, the Aboriginal Affairs Minister asked the Department for Aboriginal Sites (DAS) to work with the Karijini Aboriginal Corporation (KAC) to conduct a heritage survey at Marandoo before the end of the month.

In six days, a time period incredibly constrained by normal standards for such a survey, fieldwork surveyed a small proportion of each zone in the area and found 105 heritage sites.

Surveyors uncovered rock art, traditional burial sites, scarred trees, stone quarries, walled storage sites, stone arrangements, and rockshelters with evidence of grinding material, marine shell, animal bone, stone, and wooden artefacts visible on the surface.

An estimated further 300 sites were unable to be documented and the survey report concluded that the project area contained sites of outstanding archaeological and cultural significance.

The Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992 (WA), which stripped the 193 square kilometre area of its Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) protections, required another salvage of heritage material at the site to be sent for analysis and safekeeping before the area was cleared for mining.

It was this material that was excavated and sent to the Northern Territory University, and later disposed of at the Darwin tip.

Dr Przywolnik says it’s hard to know exactly what archeologically significant material may have been destroyed by Rio Tinto, subcontractor Kinhill Engineers and the Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin University).

“In the excavations that we undertake today, we’re finding all sorts of materials; stone artefacts as well as hearths where people have been cooking over fires … and also the remains of meals and bones,” she said.

“We’ve found marine shell, which is of great interest to the Traditional Owners because we’re nowhere near the coast so we know that marine shell was traveling from the coast somehow.

“Being able to examine those sorts of arrangements carefully can open up all sorts of different understandings and interpretations that you wouldn’t get any other way.”

“We have no idea what there was in that material that was thrown away.”

A 1991 Australian Financial Review article on Marandoo reports Rio Tinto’s predecessor, Conzinc Riotinto of Australia, arguing the area did not need protections as it was only “passing-through Country” rather than a place of permanent residence.

Dr Przywolnik says this was a misunderstanding of the significance of Marandoo.

“It just goes to show that they didn’t care to ask what that meant,” she said.

Of deepest concern to Traditional Owners is the possibility that the final resting places of their ancestors may have been disturbed.

A burial site was among the two sites protected from the mining giant’s activities but Traditional Owners believe that more burial sites have been destroyed.

“My father knew that the bones of our Old People were at Marandoo, in the caves at Manganese Gorge. He saw them,” said an Eastern Guruma Traditional Owner in the inquiry submission.

“We went out years ago to see the country at Manganese Gorge, before it was destroyed, and found that the bones had been removed.

“They were gone, and no one knew where the bones were taken. It made our Old People angry, that the bones were taken away. It made them sad. They never got any answers from Rio.

“There is nothing left for our children.”

When asked if Rio Tinto could confirm whether there were human remains at any Marandoo sites before the area was cleared for mining, a spokesperson for the miner told NIT they were unable to comment.

By Sarah Smit