A mining company blasted Juukan Gorge cave, a 46,000-year-old aboriginal rock shelter was deliberately blasted along with other sacred sites Sunday (May 24).

The cave, located in Juukan Gorge in the Hammersley Ranges, about 60 km from Mt. Tom Price, is one of the oldest in the western Pilbara region and the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.

Rio Tinto, a global mining company, was granted permission to carry out the blasts in 2013 under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act to expand its iron ore mine in Western Pilbara. The law was drafted in 1972 to favor mining proponents.

A year after the consent was granted, an archaeological dig intended to retrieve whatever could be saved and discovered that the site was more than twice as old as previously thought. The heritage site is also rich in artifacts, including sacred objects.

The Guardian reported that among the artifacts found-- the most precious was a 4,000-year-old length of plaited human hair, woven together from strands from the heads of several different people, which DNA testing revealed were the direct ancestors of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners living today.

Photos by the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation shows Juukan Gorge in Western Australia taken on June 2, 2013 (top) and May 15, 2020
Photos by the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation shows Juukan Gorge in Western Australia taken on June 2, 2013 (top) and May 15, 2020 PKKP Aboriginal Corporation / PKKP Aboriginal Corporation

The Aboriginal Heritage Act, however, does not allow consent to be renegotiated based on new information. So, despite the regular meetings with Rio Tinto, the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation was unable to stop the blast from taking place.

The blast caused significant distress to the traditional landowners as the damages to the site were irreversible.

"Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land," ABC quoted John Ashburton, chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee, as saying. "We recognize that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system," Ashburton added.

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation is currently working with Rio Tinto to preserve the remaining rock shelters. A Rio Tinto spokesperson told The Sydney Morning Herald that they are working with the traditional landowners to help limit the damage to the heritage sites as much as possible.

"Rio Tinto has had a long-standing relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people for more than three decades and we have been working together in relation to the Juukan area over the past 17 years," the spokesman said.