Colin Hamlett, a traditional owner of an area of the WA Weld Ranges

Wilgie Mia, the oldest continuous mining operation in the world

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Wilgie Mia, known by the Wajarri Traditional Owners as Thuwarri Thaa (the place of red ochre), lies in the Weld Ranges of Australia. It is the largest and deepest underground Aboriginal ochre mine in Australia and the world’s oldest continuing mining operation. Its’ rich red ochre was first extracted more than 30,000 years ago and is still used today in Aboriginal Law, art, ceremony and healing practices throughout the Western Desert and its fringes.

Wilgie Mia is characterised by large open-cut pits, excavated caverns and underground galleries that follow ochre seams in red, yellow, and green. But it was the red ochre that was most prized by the Wajarri people.  The lustrous sheen and the ‘glow in the dark’ properties of this particular ochre, made it among the most sought after ochre in the country, used for thousands of years in ceremonies, rock art, and for trade.

The ochre from Wilgie Mia formed part of the most extensive pre-contact ochre trade network recorded in Australia. The ochre would be delivered on foot to the border of a neighbouring tribe where it would be passed on from one territory to another, reaching as far afield as 1,600 kilometres away.  For those seeking ochre, a message stick was marked and passed on ahead of travelling men, letting people ahead of them know they were coming seeking red ochre from the Weld Range. Spears, boomerangs, and kangaroos were given as payment.

According to the Dreamtime stories of the Wajarri people, Wilgia Mia was created when Marlu, a red kangaroo, was speared.  Marlu’s blood was believed to have made the red ochre, his liver the yellow ochre and his gall the green ochre.

The blood red ochre at Wilgie Mia - Australia

The blood red ochre at Wilgie Mia. Photo credit: Phillip_C

According to Aboriginal mythology, Wilgie Mia is guarded by four powerful spirits known as Mondong, represented in a large imposing outcrop to the north of the mine, who protect the place from thieves and people who do not follow the proper law for collecting the ochre.  The ancient mine was greatly feared except by the elders who were initiated into the secrets of the site.  Piles of stones marked the boundaries of the area beyond which it was not safe for the uninitiated to enter and rituals were performed to prevent injury or death during mining operations. For example, after extracting as much ochre as they could manage, Aboriginal miners would walk out of the cave backwards, obliterating their footprints with a leafy bough so that the Mondong would not be able to track them and seek revenge.

The mining techniques of the Wajarri

The mining techniques used by Aboriginal people at Wilgie Mia included 'stop and pillar' techniques to provide increased safety when mining underground, and the use of pole scaffolding with fire-hardened wooden platforms to allow them to extract ochre from different heights in the rock face at the same time. Heavy stone mauls were used to break the ochre away from the rock walls. These techniques have not been recorded at other traditional Aboriginal mines.

Once the lumps of ochrous stone were pulled from the mine, they were carried to the top of the northern slope where they were broken up to extract the ochre. The pigment was then pulverised with rounded stones, dampened with water and worked into balls. Using these methods the Aboriginal miners removed about 19 600 cubic metres of ochre and rock weighing around 40 000 tonnes. This is the largest amount of ochre removed by Indigenous people from one location in Australia using traditional mining methods.

The National Heritage Register on which Wilgie Mia was listed in 2011, describes the mine as offering “outstanding heritage value to the nation because of the place’s importance in demonstrating a high degree of creative or technical achievement during the last three thousand years”.  

Crushing Ochre - Australia

Crushing ochre. Photo source .

The exploitation of Wilgie Mia

In 1917, Wilgie Mia and 10 500 acres of surrounding country was proclaimed an Aboriginal Reserve (Aborigines Act 1905). A special reserve at the mine itself was established over one acre and to a depth of 100 feet below the surface. However, in the mid twentieth century, commercial miners recognised the value of the ochre at Wilgie Mia and the boundary of the reserve was changed by proclamation. It was mined commercially for the first time in 1944 by J.C Zadow and J.G Cassidy and in 1959, the mining permit was transferred to the Universal Milling Company. In 1969 the Department of Native Affairs recommended that the Universal Milling Companies licence be revoked because of the illegal use of explosives at Wilgie Mia and its non-compliance with heritage protection requirements.  Following extensive lobbying from the Aboriginal community, in 1973, Wilgie Mia was declared a protected area under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and is now classified as a restricted site.  Nevertheless, ochre continues to be extract without the permission of the Traditional Owners, and unauthorised visits occur due to encouragement from tourism websites.

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