Sep 15th 2020

Destruction of Juukan Cave a loss to humanity

by Sam Ben-Meir


Sam Ben-Meir is an assistant adjunct professor of philosophy at City University of New York, College of Technology.

The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May. What is particularly disturbing about this event is that Rio Tinto was apparently acting entirely within the law. Which is to say that this kind of tragic and wanton destruction will continue to happen unless stricter regulations are enacted. The sites were located on the ancestral lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura, or PKKP, people in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Anthropological studies commissioned by Rio Tinto itself confirmed that the caves were of "the highest archaeological significance," containing an "enormous museum of information about [the PKKP people's] ancestors' work and lives."

The conflict between industry and heritage that we are witnessing today is of course not a new phenomenon. Indeed, in Australia, it has been a persistent problem since at least the early 1960s when the mining and extraction of iron ore in the Pilbara region began. But the struggle can and should be seen also within the larger context of the marginalization, subjugation and decimation of the Aboriginal peoples that has been the story of their ongoing plight since 1788 when British settlers began colonizing the Australian mainland. Not until 1965 did most Aboriginal Australians enjoy full citizenship or voting rights; and it would take six more years before they were included on the national census. Australia’s indigenous people constitute only two percent of the population and yet are 28 percent of Australia’s prisoner demographic.

The unrelenting destruction of indigenous heritage sites is entirely consistent with the same ideology that has driven Australia’s aggressive campaign of deforestation. Both are expressions of one and the same policy of uncompromising colonization. Over the last 200 years Australia has lost 25 percent of its rainforest, 45 percent of open forest, and 32 percent of woodland forest. In fact, among developed countries Australia has one of the highest rates of deforestation, which has led to the annihilation of much of its native wildlife. Twenty percent of Australia’s mammals, 7 percent of its reptiles, and 13 percent of its birds are listed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable. According to wilderness.org.au, 1,000 plant and animal species are presently at risk of extinction.

The obliteration of the Juukan Gorge caves certainly represents a devastating loss to the PKKP – but it is a tragic loss for the world as well. These rock shelters fostered our understanding the human beginnings of art, religion and culture, indeed the dawn of humanity’s self-awareness – yet, as anthropologist Marcia Langton observed, “their significance for further understanding of deep human history is a matter that was willfully ignored by Rio Tinto.” What consequences did Rio Tinto suffer for its recklessness? Several of its executives will lose their bonuses, totaling roughly 3.8 million pounds – a mere slap on the wrist which in the absence of legislation will do nothing to protect the few similar sites that remain.

Dr Lawrence Owens, an archaeologist and anthropologist from the University of London, told Mining Technology: “There is no other way of putting this – the destruction of Juukan Gorge cave was a travesty and a disgrace.” He added, “It is difficult to fully express the magnitude of what this site was, what it meant, and how its destruction has impacted upon us all.” The caves that Rio Tinto blasted have been understandably compared to Stonehenge which is some 5,000 years old – yet the comparison does not really do justice to what we lost, given that this site was nearly ten times older than that. Moreover, unlike Stonehenge which belongs entirely to a bygone era, these caves have been continually occupied by the same peoples, generation after generation, over these tens of thousands of years. They were a kind of “encyclopedia of the Aboriginal people.”  

One of the most precious and astounding discoveries in the cave was a 4,000-year-old length of plaited human hair, woven together from strands from the heads of several different people. This remarkable find established through DNA testing a direct link to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners living today.

Rio Tinto received permission to conduct the blasts in 2013 under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.  It is an offence under Section 17 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA) of 1972 to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter an Aboriginal site. However, under Section 18 landowners may apply for consent to breach the restrictions established under Section 17. Accordingly, Rio Tinto was not operating illegally or flouting the law.

David Ritter, former principal legal officer for the Yamatji Land and Sea Council, observed that: “It is a myth, expressed by the objects of the Aboriginal Heritage Act that the main purpose of the legislation is to protect Aboriginal heritage. It may be more accurate to describe the AHA as an act to regularize the obliteration of Aboriginal heritage... It is legislation by the non-Indigenous community for the non-Indigenous community that creates a superficial veneer of protection for Indigenous interests. The result is that the colonizing power can continue to do with Aboriginal places and materials exactly as it wants.”

We know that this desecration could have been avoided altogether because during a federal parliamentary inquiry, Rio Tinto’s CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques stated that there were four options to expand the iron ore mine in the area. Three of the options would have avoided the rock shelters, but the mining company chose the more destructive alternative as it allowed them to extract $135 million worth of iron ore, a profit that exceeded the other choices. They opted for the route that allowed the company to mine “8 million tonnes of higher-grade iron ore," according to Mr. Jacques.

It has long been recognized that Australian laws do not adequately protect Aboriginal heritage sites. The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years – with examples having been found that depict long-extinct megafauna; including the Thyalacine (Tasmanian tiger) and Fat-tailed Kangaroo. Representations of the now-extinct marsupial lion have also been found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The extraordinary rock art of the Dampier Archipelago easily constitutes the largest and most diverse gallery of petroglyphs in the world. Recent archeological research confirms that the Dampier Archipelago and Burrup Peninsula (formerly known as Dampier Island) contains the largest concentration of ancient rock art in the world. However, the rock art of the Burrup Peninsula has been physically destroyed by construction and eroded by industrial emissions, continually “under threat due to high concentrations of acidic and nitrate-rich pollution from nearby industrial complexes,” according to a 2017 report published by the Journal of Archeological Science.

What we know is that the cultural and scientific significance of the rock art is comparable to ‘such world-renowned prehistoric art galleries as the caves of Lascaux in the Dordogne, and Altamira in northern Spain’. The tragedy is that we are losing the cultural riches of these region before we have had a chance to truly understand their significance – for, as a 2006 report prepared for the National Trust of Australia (WA) states, “numerous petroglyphs and other archaeological features have been destroyed and a significant portion of the extraordinary heritage of the Dampier Archipelago has been irretrievably compromised without any clear understanding of what has been lost.”

Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world – adequate protection of that culture will be encouraged when we respect and appreciate the wisdom of the Aboriginal people and their genius for ‘living with and fostering their environment.’ We may, for example, view Aboriginal rock art as disrupting the dualistic, Cartesian view of landscape, offering instead an embodied approach which recognizes that we “do not live in an environment. Such a position immediately posits our separation. Rather we have an environment and we are part of it and it is part of us… We are… immersed.” In Animism: Respecting the Living World (2005), Graham Harvey observes that, “[W]e have far too many experiences of the aliveness of the world and the importance of a diversity of life to fall in step completely with Cartesian modernity.” We need to broaden the interpretative lens with which we view Aboriginal rock art and see that in fact it represents an important challenge, and possibly a corrective to an overly dualistic ontology, which pits nature versus culture, mind versus body and human versus non-human.  

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "One of the great paradoxes of human endeavour is why so much time and effort is spent on creating things and indulging in behaviour with no obvious survival value – behaviour otherwise known as art. Attempting to shed light on this issue is problematic because first we must define precisely what art is. We can start by looking at how art, or the arts, were practised by early humans during the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000 to 12,000 years ago, and immediately thereafter."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "As a portrait artist, I am an amateur at this compared to the technology gurus and psychologists who study facial recognition seriously. Their aplications range from law enforcement to immigration control to ethnic groupings to the search through a crowd to find someone we know. ---- In my amateur artistic way, I prefer to count on intuition to find facial clues to a subject’s personality before sitting down at the drawing board. I never use the latest software to grapple with this dizzying variety.
Dec 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "In the exhibition catalog Lisane Basquiat writes: 'What is important for everyone to understand… is that he was a son, and a brother, and a grandson, and a nephew, and a cousin, and a friend. He was all of that in addition to being a groundbreaking artist.' "
Nov 24th 2022
"The art of kintsugi is inextricably linked to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi: a worldview centred on the acceptance of transience, imperfection and the beauty found in simplicity.....nothing stays the same forever." --- "The philosophy of kintsugi, as an approach to life, can help encourage us when we face failure. We can try to pick up the pieces, and if we manage to do that we can put them back together. The result might not seem beautiful straight away but as wabi-sabi teaches, as time passes, we may be able to appreciate the beauty of those imperfections."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was quick to congratulate Sunak, referring to him as “the ‘living bridge’ of UK Indians”. In the difficult waters of British and indeed international politics, all eyes will be watching to see how well the bridge stands."
Oct 5th 2022
EXTRACTS: "In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw eulogized Jean-Luc Godard as 'a genius who tore up the rule book without troubling to read it.' This is a fundamental misunderstanding." ----- " As had been true for Picasso - and Eliot, Joyce, Dylan, and Lennon - it was Godard's mastery of the rules of his discipline that made his violation of those rules so exciting to young artists, and his work so influential.  But perhaps these innovators' mastery of the rules can only be seen by those who themselves understand the rules."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "For many of us, some personality traits stay the same throughout our lives while others change only gradually. However, evidence shows that significant events in our personal lives which induce severe stress or trauma can be associated with more rapid changes in our personalities." ----- "Over time, our personalities usually change in a way that helps us adapt to ageing and cope more effectively with life events." ----- " ....participants in this study recorded changes in the opposite direction to the usual trajectory of personality change." --- "....you might like to take the time to reflect on your experiences over the past few years, and how these personality changes may have affected you."
Sep 21st 2022
EXTRACTS: "It might seem like an obscure footnote among the history-making events of 2022, but the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s death coincides with the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth." ----- "As a committed Stoic, Smith had little patience for greed. The whole point of Roman Stoic philosophy was to use personal moral discipline to support the rule of law and constitutions, and to make society a better place." ----- "When we read Smith, we are better served to think of the example of Elizabeth II than of those driven by personal greed. It might sound archaic, but, as Britons’ response to her death suggests, these values still appeal to a great many people today."
Sep 14th 2022
EXTRACT: "On the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, the former Prince of Wales was proclaimed King Charles III. Although it’s been known for decades that Charles would succeed his mother, there were rumours that he might, once king, choose the name George due to the contentious legacies of Kings Charles I and Charles II."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "An over-emphasis on looking for the chemical equation of depression may have distracted us from its social causes and solutions. We suggest that looking for depression in the brain may be similar to opening up the back of our computer when a piece of software crashes: we are making a category error and mistaking problems of the mind for problems in the brain. It would be wise to observe caution with drugs whose effectiveness is not certain, whose mode of action is unknown, and which have many side-effects, especially for use in the long term."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACTS: "China uses incarcerated prisoners of conscience as an organ donor pool to provide compatible transplants for patients. These prisoners or “donors” are executed and their organs harvested against their will, and used in a prolific and profitable transplant industry."
Jul 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "In the first episode of season three of The Kominsky Method (2021), there is a funeral service for Michael Douglas’ character’s lifelong friend Norman Newlander (played by Alan Arkin). By far the most inconsolable mourner to give a eulogy is Newlander’s personal assistant of 22 years who, amid a hyperbolical outpouring of grief, literally cannot bring herself to let go of the casket. It is a humorous scene, to be sure, but there is something else going on here that is characteristic of employer-employee relations in this era of neoliberal capitalism. “Making him happy made me happy,” she exclaims, “his welfare was my first thought in the morning, and my last thought before I went to sleep.” That isn’t sweet – it is pathological. ----- Employee happiness is becoming increasingly conditional on, or even equated with, the boss’ happiness. As Frédéric Lordon observes in his book, Willing Slaves of Capital (2014), “employees used to surrender to the master desire with a heavy heart…they had other things on their minds…ideally the present-day enterprise wants subjects who strive of their own accord according to its norms.” In a word, the employee is increasingly expected to internalize and identify with the desire of the master."
Jul 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "For three decades, people have been deluged with information suggesting that depression is caused by a “chemical imbalance” in the brain – namely an imbalance of a brain chemical called serotonin. However, our latest research review shows that the evidence does not support it."
Jul 13th 2022
"But is he “deluded”? " ---- "....we sometimes end up with deluded leaders because we ourselves can be somewhat delusional when we vote." ---- "David Collinson, a professor of leadership and organization at Lancaster University, associates this predicament with excessive positive thinking, or what he calls “Prozac leadership,” in reference to the famous antidepressant that promises to cheer people up without actually fixing what is wrong in their lives. “ ---- "In politics, Prozac leaders come to power by selling the electorate on wildly overoptimistic views of the future. When the public buys into a Prozac leader’s narrative, it is they who are already verging on the delusional." ----- "Another potential example is Vladimir Putin, who has conjured a kind of nostalgic dream world for his followers and the wider Russian public."
Jun 25th 2022
EXTRACT: "Many veterans, refugees and other people who have experienced trauma and have mental health issues spend little time thinking about the future. Instead, they are narrowly focused on the negative past. However, people who have experienced trauma and developed a healthy future perspective report being better at coping with life, having fewer negative thoughts about the past, and getting better sleep compared with those who have a negative future perspective. So, instead of dwelling on the past, people who have suffered trauma should be encouraged to think about the future and set goals that help them develop hope for a good life."
Jun 8th 2022
EXTRACT: " The devastation of war is a recurring theme in Turner’s work, and unlike his contemporaries Turner is willing to forego the occasion to bolster national pride or the patriotism of its fallen heroes. In “The Field of Waterloo” (1818), Turner’s great tragic vision of war, “The…  dead of both sides lay intertwined, nearly indistinguishable surrounded by the gloom of night.” Near the bottom center there are three women. The one farthest from us is bearing a child and in her right hand a torch which illumines the sea of mangled bodies. Beside her is another woman struggling to keep a third (also with child) from collapsing outright. Turner reflects not only on the dead and dying, but on the widows and orphans that war produces."
May 19th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Thus experimental creativity could be witnessed, but not verbalized.  When five leading Abstract Expressionist painters founded an art school in New York in the late 1940s, they offered no formal courses, because, as Robert Motherwell explained, "in a basic sense art cannot be taught." ------ "Conceptual artists are ...... more inclined to use written texts to accompany their works in other genres.  In 1883, Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, "One of these days I will write you a letter;  I shall write it carefully and try to make it short, but say everything I think necessary."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Unfortunately, it’s common for dark triad personalities to become leaders. ..... their ruthlessness and ability to manipulate means they attain positions of power quite easily. When a “dark” leader attains power, conscientious, moral people rapidly fall away. A government operating under these conditions soon becomes what the Polish psychologist Andrzej Lobaczewski called a “pathocracy” – an administration made up of ruthless individuals devoid of integrity and morality. This happened with Donald Trump’s presidency, as the “adults in the room” gradually headed for the exit, leaving no one but staffers defined by their personal allegiance to Trump. A similar decay in standards has occurred in the UK."
May 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "The proportion of US electricity deriving from wind and solar in the month of April climbed to 20%. Thus, the renewables total was 26.5 if we add in hydro. This statistic is unprecedented."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Every year, around 12,000 men in the UK die from prostate cancer, but many more die with prostate cancer than from it. So knowing whether the disease is going to advance rapidly or not is important for knowing who to treat." ...... "For some years, we have known that pathogens (bacteria and viruses) can cause cancer. We know, for example, that Helicobacter pylori is associated with stomach cancer and that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer." ....... "....we have identified five types (genera) of bacteria linked to aggressive prostate cancer." ...... "We examined prostate tissue and urine samples from over 600 men with and without prostate cancer," ..... "....men who had one or more of the bacteria were nearly three times more likely to see their early stage cancer progress to advanced disease, compared with men who had none of the bacteria in their urine or prostate."