Part of the world’s oldest continuous living culture has been destroyed after mining giant Rio Tinto detonated explosives on the lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Peoples in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Juukan Gorge—60 kilometres northwest of Tom Price—hosts culturally significant sites dating as far back as 46,000 years, including two ancient rock shelters.

Rio Tinto confirmed on Tuesday they had carried out blasting activity at the Brockman 4 iron ore mine on Sunday, which resulted in the destruction of the cultural sites.

NIT understands these significant rock shelters were just metres from the blast site.

A statement released by the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation Registered Native Title Body Corporate (RNTBC) said Traditional Owners were “distressed” by the blasts and resulting erasure of significant history.

“Juukan 2, which was part of the area blasted on Sunday along with Juukan 1, is an Aboriginal archaeological site in the west Hamersley Plateau, which research shows Aboriginal people first occupied more than 46,000 years ago,” the statement read.

“Few early dates for the plateau have exceeded 30,000 years.”

Although the affected area is within the PKKP Native Title area awarded in 2015, Rio Tinto received permission in 2013 to carry out blasts and other excavation works under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).

It’s understood Sunday’s explosions were performed in compliance with the Act.

Since Rio Tinto was granted this permission, however, extensive archaeological research has been undertaken, resulting in the discovery of a number of significant artefacts.

In 2014, excavations at Juukan 2 and another rock shelter uncovered grinding and pounding stones—an example of early grindstone technology use—and a macropod bone which had been sharpened into a pointed tool.

Archaeologist Dr Michael Slack, who carried out the excavations, and his team also discovered DNA samples dating back 4,000 years: plaited hair believed to be part of a hair belt worn by PKKP Traditional Owners.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee Chair, John Ashburton, said Juukan 2 and surrounding sites were one of the earliest sites in the upland Pilbara region.

“There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one and we know from archaeological studies that it is one of the earliest occupied locations not only on the western Hamersley Plateau, but also in the Pilbara and nationally. Its importance cannot be underestimated,” he said.

Ashburton said Traditional Owners are frustrated by a rigid system that fails to take new, important information into consideration after Section 18 authorisation.

“We are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system which does not recognise the importance of such significant archaeological discoveries within the Juukan Gorge once the Minister has given consent,” he said.

WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, said he was unaware of the blast and Native Title holder concerns prior to PKKP Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC’s statement and that under current legislation, Section 18 consent “cannot be reviewed or revoked by the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee or the Minister”.

“In every respect, for Native Title and heritage, we have always emphasised and prioritised agreement making. It’s always terribly upsetting when Traditional Owners feel as though they have not been treated with respect and as a result lost a site important to them,” Minister Wyatt said in a statement to NIT.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs also announced Thursday the McGowan Government would be providing $250,000 in grants to preserve Aboriginal heritage sites across WA.

“Through the Preserving our Aboriginal Sites grants program, 13 not-for-profit Aboriginal organisations will share in grants totalling $250,000 for a range of projects to protect and preserve registered Aboriginal sites across the State,” the statement read.

“The grants will protect ancient rock art, remove graffiti, and share stories through interpretive signage designed by Aboriginal artists, and installed at natural walking trails.”

It’s unclear whether this announcement was planned for National Reconciliation Week or if it was announced in response to the ruin of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive, Chris Salisbury, did not respond to NIT’s direct questions by time of publication, however was quoted in a Rio Tinto statement regarding the incident.

“Rio Tinto takes cultural heritage and partnerships with Traditional Owner groups very seriously. We were the first mining company in Australia to embrace Traditional Owners’ Native Title rights and interests, and we have a long history of recognising and working to safeguard areas of cultural significance,” Salisbury said in the statement.

The statement also reiterated that Rio Tinto acted within the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) and that they had “all necessary approvals and consents”.

“To support thorough engagement on these issues, we have a range of formal avenues in place, which go beyond legal requirements. These activities support ongoing dialogue and engagement to occur as part of these processes on cultural heritage.

“We will continue to work with the PKKP, Traditional Owner groups, government and industry on reform in this area.”

By Hannah Cross