Oldest and largest concentration of ancient rock art under threat from Australian Government
Australian Indigenous art is the oldest unbroken tradition of art in the world. It is so old in fact, that examples have been found that depict long extinct megafauna. One particular region, the Dampier Archipelago of Western Australian, is thought to contain the oldest and largest concentration of rock art in the world with more than one million petroglyphs. However, in a move that has devastated both the local Aboriginal community and archaeologists, the state government of Western Australia has now deregistered the region as a sacred site in order to make way for industrial development.
Known locally as Murujuga, the Dampier Archipelago is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia and is made up of 42 islands and islets, of which Dampier Island is the largest. As a result of industrial development, Dampier Island is now an artificial peninsula known as the 'Burrup Peninsula'.
Map of Dampier Archipelago and Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia (Wikimedia Commons)
The archaeology of the Dampier Archipelago is rich and complex and consists of stone circles, rock shelters, cairns, conical mounds, campsites, ancient quarries, grinding patches, shell middens, and over a million petroglyphs. More than 2,500 sites are registered with the Department of Indigenous Affairs for their ceremonial or mythological significance to the Aboriginal people, who are believed to have inhabited the land for between 40,000 and 60,000 years.
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Dampier Archipelago coastal landscape, 2000 (World Monuments Fund)
The Dampier rock art displays a stunning range of styles and subjects. The motifs include geometric designs, human and animal tracks, depictions of human-like figures, and animals that no longer inhabit the region, including the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), which has been extinct for around 3,000 years on mainland Australia. There are also figures with both human and animal features which may represent mythological characters, and human faces which are thought to be the oldest depictions of the human face ever found (see featured image).
Burrup rock art depicting people with big hands (Fee Plumley / Flickr)
While dating rock art poses many difficulties, archaeologists have estimated that some of the petroglyphs are around 30,000 years old, based on the weathering patterns and style of art, while others say they may be up to double that age.
Indigenous peoples living in Dampier today have said that the rock art played a role in the sacred beliefs and practices of the Aboriginal population, and represent both their laws and traditions.
Aboriginal rock carving at Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara Region, Western Australia (Wikimedia Commons)
The region’s national and international significance has been recognised in its listing with the World Monuments Fund, National Heritage, and the National Trust of Australia. Yet despite this, there are plans to install a liquid natural gas plant and expand mining, which will cause widespread destruction to the ancient sites in Dampier. Already, more than 20 percent of the rock art on Murujuga has been destroyed by industrial development.
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An Iron Ore mine in Dampier, Western Australia. (Wikimedia Commons)
“According to the Philip Adams radio show on the ABC, one worker on the site, an electrician for Woodside claimed the company had crushed 10,000 petroglyphs for roadfill,” reports Burrup.org.au. “The oldest representation of a human face was also destroyed. The rock pools are filled with green scum, the eucalypts of the area dying, the fluming of escaping natural gas, from faulty piping, rises as high as a six story building and burns the equivalent of the entire annual emissions in New Zealand, every day.”
Sadly, the government’s move to deregister the site as sacred follows other recent actions aimed at placing profit before the preservation of culture and recognition of indigenous rights. In an upcoming cost-cutting move, the Western Australian government will be halting funding to150 remote indigenous communities. Beginning June 2015, these communities will no longer receive electricity, water, or waste services. Many fear the move will create a large population of refuges, will negatively impact other towns, and will cause severe health and social issues.
Featured image: The enigmatic archaic faces, found in large numbers over the Burrup are among the earliest rock art works in the region. May be one of the oldest carved faces in the world (Credit: Ken Mulvaney)