The discovery of rare indigenous artefacts on Rio Tinto’s planned Western Turner Syncline expansion may effect continued development.
Rio Tinto’s archaeological team, heritage advisors and representatives of the local Eastern Guruma people made the “exceptionally rare find” in a rock shelter on its Tom Price operations, which comprises around 50 artefacts, including grinding stones, according to the National Indigenous Times.
A Rio Tinto spokesperson confirmed the find, stating “the site was identified during an archaeological survey undertaken by consultant archaeologists and representatives of the Eastern Guruma”.
It said the cultural significance of the site was “very high” and “very rare for the region”.
“No other sites in this area are known [to be] as old and span the last Ice Age”, Rio Tinto’s report to the WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs states.
It went on to say the uncovered rock shelter “had the potential to provide new information concerning the occupation, subsistence patterns and cultural landscapes of Indigenous people . . . it has the rare potential for answering questions related to the chronological change over the Holocene and Pleistocene, including the Last Glacial Maximum”.
Rio Tinto’s report added that the shelter itself is also likely to be associated with the Dreaming.
It is not known how this discovery will affect Rio Tinto’s plan to expand Western Turner Syncline hub, which is a branch of its Tom Price operations, with a spokesperson telling Australian Mining that “the rock shelter is located near one of the planned mine pits and there is the potential for vibrations from mining activity to impact it”.
According to the National Indigenous Times Rio Tinto may lodging a notice under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, which allows them to mine the site, with Rio sending a draft application of their plans to the Eastern Guruma earlier this year.
Chairman of the local Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, Glen Camille, aims to speak to the miner to change the design of its pits to exclude the site.
“This site is on the very edge of one of their expansion pits. We have asked Rio to look at redesigning the pit so that this place can be saved,” he told NIT.
“This is a very significant site to the Eastern Guruma people and we need to ensure that it is protected and left alone.”
Rio Tinto said it is consulting with the local Eastern Guruma on the site.
“We are continuing to work in accordance with the West Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act. Rio Tinto recognises the cultural significance of this particular site and we are continuing to work with the East Guruma to identify an appropriate pathway forward,” a Rio spokesperson told Australian Mining.
“We are confident of finding a solution that takes account of the cultural significance of the site and our operational requirements.”
This is not the first time Rio Tinto has uncovered ancient Aboriginal artefacts on its sites
In 2011 mining and indigenous heritage combined, when an Aboriginal West Australian ochre mine was acknowledged as the oldest working mine in Australia.
The Wilgie Mia mine, located in the Weld Range near the town of Cue, has been added to Australia’s National Heritage List.
Federal Heritage Minister Tony Burke announced that “this important place helps to broaden our understanding of the history of mining in Australia.”
He went on to say that “around 19,600 cubic metres of ochre and rock weighing around 40,000 tonnes is estimated to have been removed using traditional Aboriginal techniques, including pole scaffolding with wooden platforms so the ochre could be extracted from different heights in the rock face at the same time. ”
Excavations at the mine have occurred for at least 2000 years according to dating on stone tools found at the site.
However, research points to the mine operating as far back as 30,000 years ago, with the ochre traded throughout Australia, traces of which have been found as far away as far north Queensland.