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ROCK ART AT RISK
<p>Paul Taçon</p>

Paul Taçon

A kangaroo painted in X-ray fashion in the Wellington Range, where a Canadian mining company has made a major uranium find.

Rock Art Riches: The Devastating Cost of Australia’s Mining Boom

Rich-lister Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s biggest uranium companies, and countless other prospectors are all lining up to mine landscapes holding the planet’s most ancient artworks.


Tucked away in the sandstone ridges of the rugged tropics near Australia’s north-eastern tip, the ochre “bullymen” with their big penises and staring eyes still cling to the rock.

These are secret paintings, made by Aboriginal men who were driven from their lowlands by colonials hungry for gold, and who were then harassed in the hills by the Native Mounted Police, both black troopers and their white officers.

The locals painted the police, or “bullymen”, onto the rock, in the belief that these works would conquer the enemy through sorcery, as Tommy George, a descendant of the “black trackers” now in his 80s (and the last surviving speaker of Agu Alaya, or Taipan Snake language) has explained to archaeologist Noelene Cole.

The Aboriginal fugitives believed that the paintings were a weapon that gave them power over the armed lawmen, George explained.

“It was so deeply embedded in culture that they could use the rock paintings to kill people – that’s how powerful the art was.

“The paintings were there to kill the police.

“It shows the power of that visual culture. They thought it was as strong as guns,” Cole said.

But now these poignant paintings, along with hundreds of other Aboriginal works in this remote Queensland gallery, which United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has recognised as one of the great rock-art precincts of the globe, are under a new threat from another power source: mining.

Prospectors have targeted the land beneath and around the art because it is rich in exploitable resources. These paintings are emblematic of the perils befalling rock art throughout Australia, where the resources sector has been booming for more than a decade, fuelled by China’s insatiable energy needs.

This is a recurring Australian story, as mining, industry and urbanisation surge across a landscape which harbours millions of images at more than 100,000 rock-art sites. State and territory heritage laws have proved weak in protecting the works, under governments keen to cash in on the mining bonanza.

THIS PARTICULAR FRONTIER CLASH, in Queensland’s “Quinkan country” – named after the spirit figures whose long limbs and startled expressions frolic in ochre over the sandstone – has it all: a state hungry for mining dollars; prospectors including Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, clamouring to explore for minerals and coal (Jacaranda Minerals, a company controlled by her Hancock Prospecting was among the hungry applicants); and the Aboriginal heirs to a 30,000-year-old heritage, whose custodial burden just got heavier.

Within 50 years, half of Australia’s rock art could be gone forever, while some more than 15,000 years old were at immediate risk.

Six months of dogged research by Cole and fellow archaeologist Alice Buhrich has revealed that applications for coal and mineral exploration cover almost an entire rock-art precinct at the base of Cape York Peninsula.

The region is edging toward World Heritage listing. Yet Cole and Buhrich found that the Queensland Government has already granted some mineral and coal exploration permits in areas meant to be protected as special Aboriginal places.

“It is astounding, internationally speaking, that a region like this would be considered for mining,” said Cole, an adjunct research fellow in archaeology with James Cook University. “It would be like the French mining the Lascaux caves and the Dordogne, which is World Heritage listed.”

Queensland’s Mines Minister Andrew Cripps confirmed to The Global Mail that Jacaranda Minerals had submitted two applications to explore for minerals over parts of Cape York.

These were this week being assessed, subject to four Acts governing native title, Aboriginal cultural heritage, mineral resources and environmental protection, he said.

The nugget of information about Rinehart’s involvement emerged at the end of February, when federal Environment Minister Tony Burke dropped in by helicopter during rainy season for a quick tour of Quinkan rock art. At that point, the company expressed surprise at the cultural riches involved; it has now said it will withdraw the applications.

But there is much more to tell. The Quinkan area, covering more than 230,000 hectares around Laura, which is home to 80 souls and a famous biennial indigenous dance festival, is experiencing “unprecedented pressures from tourism and mining”, Cole and Buhrich warned in the December issue of Australian Archaeology.

<p>Photo by Auscape/UIG via Getty Images</p>

Photo by Auscape/UIG via Getty Images

Quinkan spirit figures, identifiable by their long limbs and startled expressions, painted in ochre on sandstone in the Honeymoon Creek rock-art shelter on Cape York, Queensland.

The earliest known engravings in the region have been dated at a minimum 13,000 years of age and, according to Tommy’s son, Thomas George, the indigenous custodian of the Laura art, Aboriginal people are still rediscovering other long-lost artworks.

The Quinkan region rock art was once on the Register of the National Estate. But in 2004 that register was replaced by the National Heritage List and the rock art lost its federal statutory protection, as it was left up to the states to transfer places of importance onto the List.

The current Queensland heritage laws are of questionable use in protecting rock art, Cole has found.

In the land of the Quinkans, the rock art is almost wholly contained in an area marked on maps as DLA 002, a “Designated Landscape Area”, which by Queensland state law limits entry to certain people, including the Aboriginal custodians. The DLA status is meant to protect an area’s Aboriginal heritage, including its rock-art sites.

Nevertheless, mine prospectors have targeted the area because of its rich gold and coal deposits. In fact, Cole discovered that state permission for minerals exploration had been granted over the whole of DLA 002.

Cripps’s office has confirmed that a significant portion of the areas Jacaranda Minerals had applied to explore fell within DLA 002. The office has said that exploration is not allowed within the parts which are marked out as environmentally sensitive; there is a ban on use of machinery within 500 metres of the boundary of these sensitive areas.

“The paintings were there to kill the police... They thought it was as strong as guns.”

However, Cole said that once companies are granted exploration licences, their activities in the protected areas are not independently policed – the companies are expected to monitor their own compliance with Queensland’s Code of Environmental Compliance for Minerals Development.

“The granting of a permit for exploration still doesn’t mean permission to go ahead [with mining],” Cole said, “but exploration involves damage to the country, setting up camps, bringing in four wheel drives. It is a remote area and there is no-one there to check.”

Thomas George feels bewildered and powerless against the interests that would plunder the area. And there are plenty of others besides Rinehart. He wants to try to stop any thought of mining in the area right now, at application and exploration stage.

“If they start drilling or blasting around there, it will collapse because it’s all soft sandstone,” he said.

THE UNEVEN TUSSLE CREATED when an ongoing colonisation process – just a couple of centuries old with an insatiable thirst for natural resources – meets the art of 30 millennia is playing out in remote places, away from the public gaze.

In the Wellington Range of Arnhem Land, at least three-and-a-half centuries ago, an Aboriginal man climbed onto a boulder and delicately daubed yellow ochre onto a high wall, creating a masterful image of a boat — it is Australia’s oldest known “contact” rock artwork, referring to contact with non-indigenous people.

<p>Courtesy Paul Taçon</p>

Courtesy Paul Taçon

Digitally enhanced image of a prau boat depicted using yellow ochre, dating back at least 350 years, from Djulirri in Arnhem Land.

The unknown artist was 30 kilometres from the northern Australian coastline yet the accuracy with which he depicted the prau, a type of boat with rectangular sails, still in use in southeast Asia today, stuns Professor Paul Taçon, an archaeologist who dates the work somewhere between 1517 and 1664.

“The whole thing was made by a very skilled artist with a great visual memory,” said Professor Taçon, who holds the chair in Rock Art Research at Griffith University.

Now a uranium mine looms as a possibility in the hills where this faint ochre boat and thousands of other images adorn rows of stone galleries in one of the planet’s most precious rock art precincts.

One of the world’s biggest uranium miners, Cameco, has found a significant deposit, The Global Mail can reveal.

Toronto-based Cameco made its find in remote Northern Territory hills so rich in rock art that one gallery complex alone, Djulirri, has 3,000 images.

It is home to the planet’s only known indigenous rock-art stencils depicting whole birds, silhouetted against the cave wall.

Its galleries hold paintings of the dog-like carnivore, the thylacine (which disappeared from mainland Australia at least 2,000 years ago), as well as depictions of rainbow serpents, fish, reptiles, animals, people, boats, ceremonial objects and spirit figures.

<p>Courtesy of Paul Taçon, Griffith University</p>

Courtesy of Paul Taçon, Griffith University

Djulirri area rock-art panel painted several thousand years ago shows a ceremony scene.

The oldest artwork has been dated to about 15,000 years and the range of art styles is breathtaking — from the X-ray art, stencils, beeswax reliefs and ochres there amount to more than 3,000 images.

“The importance of this art site is that it’s like a library. It tells a story of what happened and the first contact of the people who contacted northwest Arnhem Land,” the Aboriginal custodian of the Djulirri gallery, Ronald Lamilami, told The Global Mail.

But for Cameco, the uranium company which has been exploring for years in remote Australia in an attempt to strike a find as good as those in its Canadian homeland, western Arnhem Land has become a special place, too.

One industry source, quoted in the online publication ProEdgeWire in November last year, said that Cameco “came to Australia to try to duplicate their grades in the Athabasca Basin of Canada [which supplies about 20 per cent of the world’s uranium] – with success at last”.

Both the Northern Territory Government and Cameco Australia have confirmed the uranium find from tests at a drill hole at nearby Angularli.

A company geologist, Mark King, told a Northern Territory mining conference last year that Angularli “and parallel structures will remain a focus in Arnhem Land for Cameco through the foreseeable future”.

Lamilami, who owns the land containing the great galleries, said that he and fellow traditional owners are not anti-development, but the resources boom has made it apparent that mining will impact both the people and the country. Rio Tinto appears to be moving toward bauxite mining in the area, too, he said.

“It’s spreading like a wart,” he said.

Members of the clan groups around the uranium find will meet soon to discuss it, he said, but Lamilami wants to be ready if any mine gets the go-ahead.

“It’s a huge deposit. They’ll have to bitumise the road and the bitumen will have an impact,” he said.

Dust and more visitors will all affect the art, said Taçon.

It is astounding, internationally speaking, that a region like this would be considered for mining. It would be like the French mining the Lascaux caves and the Dordogne, which is World Heritage listed.

Minister Burke’s office said Cameco had not yet submitted a proposal to his Government for any uranium project in the Wellington Range, but any such plan would need clearance if it were likely to have significant environmental impact.

Cameco Australia managing director Brian Reilly said that the company would work with all stakeholders to protect the area’s environment, culture and heritage.

Traditional owners review any exploration work by the company, which conducts heritage surveys to ensure these areas are protected, he said.

Lamilami wants a detailed conservation and management plan in place before any large developments proceed.

“In other parts of Australia it has been the other way around,” Taçon said.

Elsewhere, the plan has come after a hue and cry from Aborigines and others, after development has already impacted on the rock art, he said.

Taçon knows that Cameco has explored close to Djulirri, slap-bang in the middle of the range under which the uranium lies. Lamilami is also custodian of two other major nearby galleries, Malarrak and Bald Rock, and there is plenty more art out there, he said.

“There are rock art sites throughout the Wellington Range, but most of the area still has not been adequately surveyed,” said Taçon.

The Wellington Range has more known ‘contact art’ – the record Aborigines made of invaders and visitors – than any other region. At Djulirri, older art includes x-ray images of kangaroos, the Rainbow Serpent and Lightning Man, but about one quarter of the images are ‘contact’ work. These depict European missionaries, a bicycle, a biplane, a buggy, Roman numerals, and a steamship bearing eight passengers with their hands on their hips.

At nearby Malarrak and Bald Rock galleries, there are images of rifles, a coffee mug, an ocean cruiser, a biplane and three stencils of a tobacco tin.

EVERY DAY, THE LIST OF APPLICATIONS to Australian state and territory mining departments grows, in a nation which has never compiled a proper register of its rock art.

Those in the know are the amateur enthusiasts, professional archaeologists and indigenous custodians who have rediscovered, recorded and managed the magnificent art made on every suitable rock, from the ethereal Bradshaw space figures of the Kimberley in Western Australia to the carved concentric circles of Central Australia.

In the Wellington Range, Taçon is concerned that the federal government – whether of Coalition or Labor stripe after the September federal election – will allow uranium mining to go ahead, with the support of the Country Liberal Party now in power in the Territory.

The federal Coalition – now in Opposition but polling suggests the likely victor in the national elections set for Sept. 14 – recently floated a draft discussion paper which supported a new push for industrial expansion in the Top End. The paper was based on arguments made by a group whose most prominent member is miner Gina Rinehart. While Coalition leader Tony Abbott played down the implications of the paper, it is out there without a countering argument for heritage conservation.

<p>Courtesy Paul Taçon, Griffith University.</p>

Courtesy Paul Taçon, Griffith University.

Professor Paul Taçon soon after discovering the site in the Wellington Range.

In light of the immediate threats from mining prospectors in north Queensland and Arnhem Land, Taçon intends to organise a new campaign to focus on protecting Australia’s Top End rock art.

This would be an extension of the campaign he began in 2011, which centred on a video in which actor Jack Thompson narrated a tour of some of the works, and passionately pleaded that Australians should act to preserve the national rock-art estate, from north to south.

The related website, Protect Australia’s Spirit, warned that within 50 years, half of Australia’s rock art could be gone forever, while some more than 15,000 years old were at immediate risk.

Now, Taçon says, the urgency is about protecting northern Australia. “[That is] where most of the rock-art sites are, and it is where the oldest rock-art sites are, and the oldest contact art and some of the most spectacular rock art in the world.”

Any campaign aimed at protecting rock art is likely to be up against it in an economic environment in which northern states seem to be competing for development dollars and the wealth that can flow from mining.

The Northern Territory operates under the motto “Bringing Forward Discovery” — backed by $25.8 million to attract resources exploration.

One of the first acts of the new conservative Queensland Government last year was its “greentape reduction”, designed to fast-track applications by resources companies.

And the West Australian Government has an exploration incentive scheme with a kitty of $80 million.

BOTH COLE AND THOMAS GEORGE say it is vital to act now rather than to try to fight mining activity after it has been approved.

It is far better to stop mining which threatens valuable rock art at the stage before exploration permits are granted than to wait for companies to decide they want to mine a site, they contend.

“In Australia we learnt the hard way. The Burrup Dampier thing has been a disaster,” she said, referring to the smashing of the rock art of the Burrup peninsula and the Dampier archipelago in Western Australia.

The peninsula’s 114 square kilometres were once home to between 1.5 million and two million petroglyphs; of these, about 10,000 carvings covering 12 square kilometres have already been lost through iron-ore and gas development, and through expansion of Dampier port and township, according to WA state Greens parliamentarian Robin Chapple.

Taçon is concerned that the federal government, whether of Coalition or Labor stripe after the September federal election, will allow uranium mining to go ahead, with the support of the Country Liberal Party now in power in the Territory.

The president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organisations, Robert Bednarik, said this set “a world record in destruction”.

But campaigners across the world fought to halt development which could damage the one million-plus petroglyphs with estimated ages of between 200 and 30,000 years, in a rock art precinct which some say is the most precious on the globe.

It seemed in January that there was a victory. WA Premier Colin Barnett announced that a sizeable portion of the Burrup peninsula will be corralled in a national park run by the Aboriginal traditional owners; but industry will get its chunk, too.

Bednarik told The Global Mail that he hammered out the deal with Premier Barnett himself.

“This was the biggest rock-art-protection campaign in history. It concerned some $30 billion of [industrial development] investment. I am proud to say I [was able to] drive away 18 big companies,” Bednarik said.

“It’s obviously a blueprint for other sites. If we can get a similar arrangement to work in other places, where the Aboriginal people safeguard the protection of the rock art by having a national park, and if it reverts to their ownership, it is the best guarantee [of protection of the art] you can get,” he said.

But the deal isn’t quite good enough, because about 6,400 hectares has been left unprotected and available for industrial development, according to Chapple, who is campaigning for World Heritage listing for the Burrup region.

In order to keep that 6,400 hectares available for development, the Aboriginal people are being handed not the 60 per cent of the peninsula thought they were getting in their new Murujuga National Park, but only 44 per cent, he said.

The peninsula, with the highest concentration of engravings of any known site in the world, is protected through a National Heritage Listing and the park agreement, a spokeswoman for Environment Minister Bill Marmion said.

The WA Government “is committed to ensuring protection of Aboriginal rock art on the Burrup Peninsula and ensuring environmentally responsible development”, she said.

<p>GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images</p>

GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images

'Climbing Man', believed to be thousands of years old, is a relic from the Burrup Peninsula where thousands of carvings have been lost to iron-ore and gas development. The ancient rock carving shows a man climbing a tree, possibly to hunt a possum.

However, WA Greens federal Senator Scott Ludlam said, “In Western Australia in particular, the Aboriginal Heritage Act is just a machine for documenting what you are about to put bulldozers to.”

Jo McDonald, the University of WA’s Rio Tinto Chair of Rock Art said: “There’s not enough heritage protection for heritage, full stop.”

Recent changes to heritage legislation in Western Australia have downgraded the protection of Aboriginal cultural remains, she said.

There have been some wins of sorts for those seeking heritage protection of rock art this year.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke saved some rock art on the Tarkine coast of Tasmania by specifying that “indigenous values” are to be protected there, but environmentalists say that he only saved four per cent of the landscape that should be corralled from development.

<p>Courtesy of Paul Taçon, Griffith University</p>

Courtesy of Paul Taçon, Griffith University

This site was discovered in 2009, allowing it and many other recently discovered sites, to be seen by non-Aboriginal people for the first time.

And the federal Government moved to finally end the threat of further uranium mining in Kakadu’s World Heritage Area, home to possibly Australia’s most famous rock art.

“Australia has become increasingly aware of the significance of indigenous heritage, but we have a long way to go,” said University of Western Australia archaeologist Alistair Paterson.

“Our job is to make sure people understand it is an extraordinary continent, colonised for 50,000 years. There is an amazing human story there, that goes from the Ice Ages to the present,” he said.

Senator Ludlam, who has campaigned for a national heritage strategy, believes that the main difficulty in safeguarding rock art is that there is no single piece of federal legislation designed to protect it.

“The moves I am aware of are in the opposite direction. COAG [Council of Australian Governments] spent a lot of time last year arguing whether the national government would devolve its heritage protection back to the states and territories. The federal Government seems to find its national heritage protection arduous and would like to get rid of it,” he said.

“In Western Australia in particular, the Aboriginal Heritage Act is just a machine for documenting what you are about to put bulldozers to.”

Senator Ludlam is pessimistic about being able to achieve effective protection, predicting that by the time any national strategy is in place, it will be meaningless because the department responsible for enforcing it has had its funding dramatically reduced.

Meanwhile, in many states, including WA and New South Wales, historians, indigenous people and archaeologists lament that heritage-protection standards have taken a dive.

TONY BURKE MADE THE RIGHT NOISES about wanting to protect Quinkan art after he dropped in on it by helicopter.

“It’s beyond belief that anyone could see these rocks and start a conversation about mining. Yet somehow that’s the perverse outcome of recent applications before the Queensland Government,” he said.

He said that if traditional owners wanted World Heritage protection, he would back it.

But one of the barriers Thomas George finds in seeking to protect the Quinkan art is this: although he wants the listing, for complicated reasons, other Aboriginal elders do not.

According to Taçon, it could take 10 years to actually achieve World Heritage listing anyway.

And then, even if the Quinkan country is declared a World Heritage site, Cole does not foresee that the exploration licences already criss-crossing it will be terminated.

Cripps said that he and his fellow ministers responsible for the region would address any of the concerns that Cape York communities have during the consideration of exploration applications.

Right now, this remote Aboriginal landscape is more pristine than nearly anywhere else in Australia, said Cole. “I have walked those areas and it’s like the Aboriginal people left yesterday,” she told The Global Mail.

<p>Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images</p>

Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Paintings, stencil art and engravings cover the lands traditionally home to the Kuku, Yalanji, Guugu Yimithirr and Kuku Thaypan people.

The ochre the old painters used is still sitting in the rock shelters where the art was made, where the artists left it. Pull a rock apart and the ochre is clumped inside, like an egg in a yolk, said Thomas George.

He welcomes Swedish, French and German tourists who head out to Country, inspired by seeing the Quinkan artwork, including his own, which adorns Cairns Airport.

“They advertise our paintings and want to mine on them,” he said. “What’s going on?”

45 comments on this story
by Caroline Falls

This is a world story, not just an Australian story!

March 8, 2013 @ 3:21pm
by Andy Roberts

Come on Queensland, come on Australia. This is much bigger than the short term profits of shareholders in mining companies or State Government revenues. We have a remarkable corpus of rock art in these areas that is of enormous benefit to our tourism economy. More than that, it is a window into the past that is incomparable in the world especially as people likely TG are alive today to provide context and meaning. The Laura Dance festival this year in June will be an opportunity for people that care about Aboriginal cultural heritage to make their voices heard. Make those voices loud and insistent. No Mining in Quinkan country!!

March 8, 2013 @ 5:14pm
by R.Bruce

It's a bloody disgrace that Noational Heritage Sites come a poor second to money hungry miners.

March 8, 2013 @ 5:44pm
by Bronwyn Ehrenburg

This is unbelievable. We must gather together and coordinate a massive effort to stop this travesty. That these treasures should be lost to the greed of world consumerism can not be allowed to happen. This is a world story. Please everyone out there, let's gather our resources immediately.

March 8, 2013 @ 6:25pm
by Marilyn

I am sick of the short term grab for money and hang the consequences. I hope people are watching "Dust Bowl" to see what happens when money is the god.

March 8, 2013 @ 7:21pm
by Andre Ducasse

Protecting these sites is critical to ensuring that Australia's cultural heritage lives on for future generations. Is this simply going to be another case of 'money talks'.

March 8, 2013 @ 10:39pm
by Kelly Goldacre

What an utterly ridiculous beat-up. It took six months to 'reveal' where coal and mineral exploration permits were on Cape York Peninsula? Should have taken six seconds; it's public information. Reading this you'd be forgiven for thinking the existence of a permit means mining will cover a good chunk of it within a few years - this could not be further from the truth. For all the breathless emoting about 'devastating cost', how much actual destruction of rock art in recent times by mining can the author actually point to? Is there any evidence whatsoever of exploration companies violating access restrictions? Prof Tacon's estimate of 'half Australia's rock art gone within 50 years sounds completely ludicrous; what, quantitatively, is it based on? And with all due respect, Mr George appears to operating under a severe misapprehension about how exploration operates, his fears are unfounded.

March 8, 2013 @ 11:01pm
by Anne Jones

Well exposed Debra. I've wanted to visit Quinkan country ever since I read Trezise's book on his search for the paintings more than 40 years's ago. How can we help?

March 9, 2013 @ 9:31am
by Geoff Mosley

The largely hidden cost of the dismal heritage protection performance of all Governments.

March 9, 2013 @ 9:40am
by Damein Bell

there is no legal process that's can stop mining in Australia

March 9, 2013 @ 11:37am
by Christine Sanders

In Visual Art classes in Australia, we teach our students about the famous Lascaux caves and the Dordogne in France. While in our own country mining companies are planning to mine large areas containing ancient indiginious rock paintings that Australian students know little or nothing about. It will be a tragedy if this destruction is allowed to occur or indeed continue. This is indeed a world story!

March 9, 2013 @ 12:20pm
by Jacquie

The Powers That Be in France are gradually realising that 'patrimoine', or heritage, is going to be the greatest provider of economic comfort in the future, and they are guarding it. Mines may come and go, and the wealth with them in a few hands only - little given back to support national infrastructure - but rock art will remain forever, if we guard it carefully.

March 9, 2013 @ 2:35pm
by michele

i am a visual art student
i have been studying the lascaux caves
history repeats if we destroy historical cultures' icons/paintings
for what? riches that mean nothing to the majority
that make only the richest richer?
well. if you must

March 9, 2013 @ 9:16pm
by Tomas

How silly are people on this site to believe the destruction of rock art as a result of a mining lease!!!
Seriously, every mine site has a heritage department which looks for and restricts any access to sites such as these...

March 9, 2013 @ 11:49pm
by Andrew

The only reason Australia's economy isn't in the dumps like the rest of the Western World is the mining boom. Australia can stop it, but at its own peril. The rest of the Western World will welcome it to Western Declinism, a party Australia was late to.

March 10, 2013 @ 8:29am
by Mark Jackson

I was completely taken aback by the response of Kelly Goldacre above. This story warns of the possibility of mining the Quinkan area. Let's face it, unless strictly regulated and those regulations enforced, mining companies have generally shown the social conscience of a dog on your favourite rug. And I also can't assist with Professor Tacon's arguments. But simply claiming they must be wrong doesn't make them so. And you seem to be suggesting that some level of intereference with rock art sites would be acceptable. I simply can't fathom that thinking.

In my occasional travels through Cape York I have from time to time stopped at the Qinkan site just south of Laura. After a short climb up the path from the public car park you come to the first of the public sites. Turn your back on the art and look out over the valley to the distant hills. A thin carpet of dry stunted forest is interupted only by the occasional taller tree, a hardy eucalypt which was a sapling before Europeans set foot on this continent. Glimpses of the road the only difference to the view afforded by the artists 15,000 years ago. The site itself seems designed. It's a natural resting place in this area of harsh beauty. I am not the least spiritual but it is impossible to stand here and not understand the spiritual signifficance of the place.

Turn around and face the art and it doesn't matter if the work is of great spiritual significance or whether the daubings of an idle tribe member. It beggars belief that some of these images were here 15,000 years ago. It's a figure I can't get my head around. When the first of these images was created, my anscestors were cave dwellers in tribal Europe. The first advanced civilisations in Europe appeared in Greece around 3200 BCE. Building commenced on the Parthenon late in the life of these simple images. When the first Pharoa united Egypt around 3150 BCE these images were already ten thousand years old. Roll that figure around in your mind a little. Ten thousand years before building began on the first pyramid.

The discovery of Otzi, the "iceman" in the Tyrol region has been described as a world sensation in archeaology. His artefacts are guarded as priceless. He and his possessions are about 5,000 years old. These simple tools and personal belongings are amongs the most important archeaological finds in modern history. yet some of this art predates Otzi's death by five thousand years. How could we deny the same importance to the Quinkan rock art? How could we even contemplate anything but the strictest protections?

Most importantly, how could we explain to future generations that we let Gina Rhinehart or her ilk damage or destroy some of the most important archeaological sites in the world?

Kelly- even if we only let the sites be damage "a little bit" it's too much.

March 10, 2013 @ 9:03am
by Kelly Goldacre

Mark Jackson, where did I suggest that some level of interference with rock art is acceptable? And it's Prof Tacon who made the extraordinary forecast about rock art destruction; the onus is on him and the author of this piece to provide evidence for it.

March 10, 2013 @ 10:34pm
by Dennis Bauer

I Dennis Bauer worked in Mining exploration, did witnessed some of the most gross desecration of an Aboriginal burial site that i have ever had the misfortune to see.
An instance of Aboriginal skulls with candles inside for bed side lamps, not for reading, just some
perverse laughing matter. It does happen Kelly.

March 11, 2013 @ 12:37pm
by Glenda

It is criminal if the greedy people get away with the destruction of this art and culture ruination. It is so disrespectful of the traditional owners of this land. When will they stop taking over and digging this special land for their ill gotten greed. It saddens me do much to see the beautiful art and to think it could be lost to future generations. We should embrace and retain the symbolism of our countries custom of the original owners and oldest peoples if this land.

March 11, 2013 @ 10:55pm
by Mary L. Keller

Well done Debra Jopson, and well done Global Mail for the effective development of a complex issue with interactive map, sufficient images to begin at least to convey the artistic power of this heritage, and to signal with journalistic care the key figures on the playing field. The only other graphic that could really help would be available financial capital being used to by the corporations compared to the kinds of capital that preservation efforts have (how would one depict the attrition of legislative and policy instruments over time as a measure of the kinds of capital with which citizens can fight back against financial capital and profit motives? How do the efforts of researchers figure on the landscape of capitalism? What successes have marked previous Indigenous preservation groups and how does intra- and inter- disputes among the Indigenous people diminish their power?)

March 12, 2013 @ 12:02am
by Clare Caldeira

How strange the mindset of miners? To destroy rockart to get to the wealth underneath. Wealth enough to buy a Mona Lisa a few times over but leaving a legacy of nothing for those they exploit. Their's whose wealth was so great that they felt the need to share it in places where almost anyone could stumble upon it and be inspired and feel connected to the past.

March 12, 2013 @ 3:20am
by Cath Cooper

I would respectfully urge Kelly Goldacre to look at section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act under which appprovals to destroy aboriginal sites (including rock art) is granted. Proof of destruction is evident in the approvals granted and continuing submissions by mining and oil & gas companies. The Burrup Peninsula a deep concern of mine. Please visit this area to see the art and industrial development taking place. The places mentioned in the article require National Park and World Heritage protection.

March 12, 2013 @ 8:41am
by Libby Stone

How much money is enough Gina?
And to all other mining companies: please DO NOT DESTROY rock art!
And to the Federal Government - please take urgent action to protect Aboriginal Rock Art under National Park and World Heritage protection!!!

March 12, 2013 @ 2:07pm
by DavidSG

Gina, how much money is enough for you?

March 12, 2013 @ 3:13pm
by Lex Bloomfield

Perhaps people like Kelly need to be familiar with the country in which Quinkan Rock Art is found prior to expressing an opinion. Rangers in this rugged area are painstakingly locating and logging Rock Art sites which equates to a small percentage of the Rock Art known to exist in this area. I myself know of an exquisite Site which one could work nearby and be totally unaware of its existence. This site would only need exploration drilling to occur nearby to destroy these caves in such manner just from vibration. Indeed shortly before Christmas a site was located of which the centrepiece had collapsed naturally. To look at that site is still amazing but devastating seeing the painting rubble on the cave floor. This site too was not obvious from as little as 100 metres away. These are not small caves but huge. My point is that yes the exploration could be monitored and precautions taken but they may well be near such a site and while this may sound improbable I and many others can assure that this is the case. Thomas George has been quoted on his concerns and knowing Thomas very well I can assure you also he and the Murri population are sincere and passionate about their heritage culture and preservation of this unique area and its contents. I am the Manager of the Quinkan & Regional Cultural Centre in Laura and part of the mission of this Centre is to promote Tourism, Cultural and Historical Education including the Rock Art whilst providing local employment. This Centre is owned by the Laura Region and Laura townspeople of which Thomas is the Chairman of Directors, Indigenous locals are employed throughout the tourist season. Thousands of people each year visit from overseas, interstate, universities and schools just to experience a guided tour sites with Thomas or our other guides to these few sites made available but listed by UNESCO as being in the best 10 in the world. I'm sure any of these visitors would share their feelings. There are many negatives and impacts just from allowing exploration and no positives for anyone in this struggling town and area other than to leave us be and try to stimulate the local economy our way and protect what we have. Don't believe otherwise. This is arguably the richest display of Rock Art and Cultural Interpretation in the country.

March 12, 2013 @ 3:50pm
by Joe Hagarty

Absolute disgrace.....Gina you should be ashamed of yourself ..... This is Australia's heritage you grub!!!!!!! I have visited many of these sites and I hope they will be preserved for my daughter and her children's children...... GET UP STAND UP GOOD PEOPLE OF THIS SACRED LAND!!!!!!

March 12, 2013 @ 7:14pm
by Jason Makeig

Rouge mining companies are controlling the Polly's ... No wonder there's no respect for their existence.. In which case 'expect resistance.. '

March 12, 2013 @ 9:35pm
by Michael krilich

What a load of rubbish. I see by the map they are mining Arnhem Land...!! ya cant fucken drive in there and they gonna mine it!!! gimme a break.
the Great Sandy Desert..the Tanami Desert too... people just DON'T go there.
More conservation for conversation...pppffttt

March 12, 2013 @ 9:41pm
by Helena

It would be of interest to hear the "complicated reasons" that some Aboriginal people have for not wanting a world heritage listing

March 13, 2013 @ 12:03am
by Neil McRobert

The Gordon - Franklin story should be a lesson to many Australians, short term gain (HYDRO) to a thriving tourist trade which supports so many and gives great pleasure, why not the the same for Quinkan, do the sums, benefit analysis, rest my case.

March 13, 2013 @ 8:57pm
by Mark Jackson

Lex Bloomfield - great explanation. I just hope somebody is listening.

March 14, 2013 @ 8:03am
by steven king

not far south of Laura, Mantle Mining are preparing to mine Mt Mulligan ( looks like Uluru but greener) for coal.
No reason, given the country being a bit softer, to think there would be no similar artwork within the precinct but, i fear that - for more of those 'complex reasons' - the stakeholders in this gem of a place care enough to give it about as much chance as the proverbial snowflake, if or when it is
viable to go after the resource again. (Australia's Biggest Mining Disaster, 1911 ... )

March 16, 2013 @ 1:05am
by Gonzo13

The rock art could still be intact thousands of years after the mining deposits are gone and we are all getting all of our energy from the sun and this little spaceship called Earth.

That's worth fighting for.

The pillaging of our resources and consequent desecration of our culture is what happens when government gets too close to corporations. Instead of governing for people they are governing for profit.

March 22, 2013 @ 6:04pm
by Prof.Dr. Aart J.J. Mekking

The UNESCO should do something, without relent. The devastation of this most importatn heritage should be unacceptable to mankind.

Prof.Dr. Aart J.J. Mekking
Comparative Wolrd Art Hstory, Leiden University

March 26, 2013 @ 3:09am
by Norry.

Greed seems to over ride most things these days . If greedy mining magnates can oust a countries Prime Minister, popularly elected by the majority, then I hold little hope for anything else.

March 29, 2013 @ 7:36am
by Stephen

We are no longer Australians. We have sold, at least somebody did, sold out to the highest bidder this country girt by sea, abounding in natures gift of beauty rich and rare. Blackfella's new this white fellas who took the land and sold it to a company who in turn and so on. We are powerless to stop it as they were. How stupid are we? Never before have I, as an Australian, felt so hopelessly disempowered with what was ours to care for and keep now so trashed. I have from my youth felt that we destroyed blackfella with some strange ways all imported on boats, today I feel as them, now exported on boats. We will never stop this, how can we? I apologise to my children and yours, soon my little place I call home will be fracked to sell gas and coal to Posco a korean steel company who bought it. Can I stop it. No

it is too late to become a republic isn't it? Too late to say NO? We keep in the corner of the rag the union jack, The need for an uprising like that of the opponents of a system that seeks its own short term lust for quick cash of a foreign power over those who work in its soil.

Too late people. We will see the fall of Rome again its art and culture raped by the new hun of greed.

It is too late for Sorry, again and again.

April 2, 2013 @ 2:16pm
by Gordon

Stephen (and many others) spare us all this angsty stuff about disempowerment. You have a voice and you have a vote and no-one is in your way. First though I'd suggest reading the Aboriginal heritage protection legislation in whatever state you live in - see that destroying aboriginal artwork is already a crime, and that this trumps any mining lease or exploration permit. If you know of it happening report it, it's a jailable offence. Wander around and see if you can catch someone at it - it's not the commonplace occurrence this article suggests. As to the rest, despite the theory that Gina Rhinehart rings up Wayne swan on a daily basis to issue instructions, we do live in a democracy. You can vote, you can organise, and then, like me you can put up with the result.

April 11, 2013 @ 4:02am
by Gordon

I also find the cute interactive map a bit misleading. There are many generalised large areas where rock art may be found but the individual sites are small, and once identified can be (and are) avoided. In the same way, areas leased for exploration are large but the activities are sparse. On a map of the size provided the amount of land actually touched at each site would be less than a pixel (ie invisible at that scale) in the case of both the rock art sites & the exploration and mining sites. I know it doesn't suit the apocalyptic tenor of the article but preservation co-insisting with exploration is the norm not the exception. Sceptical readers might experiment with Google Earth and see how far in you have to zoom to see even the largest mines, and how much space there is between them.

April 15, 2013 @ 1:29am
by Jayden lawson

Gina Rinehart isn't as heartless as many make out. If she was told about these implications I'm sure she would listen to plans for serious conservation of them.

April 17, 2013 @ 9:19pm
by Paul Healy

It is perhaps beside the point to suggest that rock art sites are small areas that can be skilfully avoided by sensitive mining operations. Rock art sites are generally centred in the middle of environments that extend out from the galleries and incorporate the surrounding country. Thus, the gallery is only the focal point and the significance of the greater area is the really important aspect of the gallery. Mining operations are not conducted with surgical precision, impacting only the targeted ore bodies. The infrastructure generates widespread environmental damage; I would cite the Sidoarjdo mud flow in East Java, a byproduct of drilling operations by our very own Santos, as a prime example of this wanton, widespread destruction. I would suggest that instead of basing your opinions on Google Earth , get out in the world and see what mining operations are doing to the the mostly remote and underpopulated regions of the planet, or, if you want to see something a little closer, drive up to the Hunter valley and have a look at the open cut coal operations there. Yes indeed, we live in a democracy, but now we are in a time where democracy doesn't equate with 'one-man-one vote' and pragmatic, unprincipled politicians acquiesce to mining companies who use their unearned wealth to subvert and destroy democratic principles and the environment.

April 24, 2013 @ 12:58pm
by Odette Nighsky

It reminds me of those old tales of people exploiting egypt for the gold and dying because of it. This may well happen to Gina and all her helpers in this regard. The woman has a heart of steel. I hope Karma bites her hard!!

August 4, 2013 @ 1:33pm
by Malcolm

@Odette I would conjecture she has a stomach of steel and a heart of lead

August 5, 2013 @ 8:29pm
Show previous 42 comments
by Arthur Mostead

Some of the new discoveries are not that new in the Quinkan area. I have been to the site mentioned as discovered in 2009. I documented hundreds of sites together with Percy Trezise, Dick Roughsey and Earth Watch in the 1980's. We kept it quiet as at that time it had no protection and it was feared it could be vandalised & destroyed.
Arthur Mostead Photographer, Canberra ACT

August 17, 2013 @ 3:16pm
by Jim KABLE

I am visiting now in Western Anatolian Turkey. Ancient sites here are back to several thousand years BCE - all of the treated with respect and gradually being developed in an archaeological sense - especially since the time of ATATURK when laws prevented the rape and pillage of these sites by the British, the Germans, etc...even now negotiations to have their treasures returned from those countries is on-going. Yet in Australia we have sites of some tens of thousands of years old under constant threat by vested mining interests as if nothing more than weeds in the way of trimming. Shame Australia! Shame mining! Shame democracy!

September 27, 2013 @ 12:27am
by Bulu Imam

Mining all over the world has been a great destroyer of rock art and archaeological sites, and more unfound sites have been destroyed than anyone knows because these miners enter into the most inaccessible and some times most inhospitable areas and start ripping up the earth with giant excavating machines which can destroy vast areas in a fraction of the time that the old mining procedures by hand or semi-mechannized methods took. In this way the world has lost more of its unreproduceable historical records than man will ever know. Since all mining is site specific there is no question of bothering whhat is on the surface since the miners are only interested what is under the earth. From the Congo to South Africa and from the Amazon to North America's Appalachians, and especially in an ancient sub continent like India rich in palaeoarchaeology and rock paintings and heavily populated with tribal peoples in particular across the sub continent's middle part, the damage to cultural heritage and displacement of indigenous peoples has been unimaginable. Thirty percent of all the cities have the remnants of these displaced tribal populations scrounging for survival in a completely new environment. And yet the country has ministries of culture, environment and tribal affairs supposed to protect these regions.

January 3, 2014 @ 3:47am
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