Updated: May 28, 2020
On National Sorry Day, I saw the news that a mining company had blown up a 46,000 year old Indigenous site in Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
Let that sink in for a moment. A site that showed signs of human occupation dating back FORTY. SIX. THOUSAND. YEARS.
Even in the giddying realm of geologic time, that registers on the scale (late Pleistocene, to be precise). In human terms, it’s almost unimaginably ancient. It touches Deep Time. It's dizzying to imagine that ancestors of humans still living today sang, danced, laughed, worked, loved on this spot, at a time when mega fauna still roamed.
In fact, this expanse of time makes me glaze over. It’s beyond all my reference points and I become like a child, talking about something being eleventy squillion thousand years ago. It’s just really, really old. So I decided to put it into something I could look at, with a timeline to scale (yes it's hand drawn/scrawled, okay?). Each of those little dots represents 1,000 years.
You can see where Christ was born, so that's us now, around the 2,000 AD mark, and you can see thousands of years into the future, up until 10,000 AD. You can see that busy little patch a few thousand years before us, when Stonehenge was built and things like paper and gunpowder and glass and the wheel first appeared. The Giza Pyramids, about 3,500 years BC. A bit further back, the start of agriculture and the establishment of Göbekli Tepe, around 9, 500 years BC. This amazing site excited everybody when it was uncovered by archaeologists in Anatolia a few years ago, as it changed the way people looked at history. It was considered to be the oldest man-made place of worship yet uncovered. Before, it was thought that agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Göbekli Tepe seemed to show that the urge to worship sparked civilisation. It was a game changer.
Then, a few really old things, like the famous and beautiful Lascaux cave paintings which are about 20,000 years old (not the oldest art ever found, but among the most detailed and intricate).
And then, a vast swathe of time - thousands and thousands and thousands of years - until we get to the human age of the site that was just blown up.
This humbling depiction of humanity shows how small our register really is. How the things we see as ancient and significant are really very recent, compared to the human history of Australia. Our own history barely paddles around the edges of today.
Let's go back to Göbekli Tepe for a moment. It's a magnificent and truly astounding site, cited as the oldest temple ever found. But what we have here, on this land, is immensely older. Before Juukan Gorge was blown up, archaeologists had already found grinding and pounding stones and a 28,000-year-old tool made from bone, each one of the oldest examples of these technologies known in Australia; and a piece of a 4000-year-old plaited hair belt whose DNA has been linked to that of today’s Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners. There was a report due for publication this year that says the excavations provided new insights into the way of life for the earliest human populations, revealing the diversity and complexity of late Pleistocene toolkits, and the timing of tool use.
The sites’ significance could not be overstated, their report said, and the other rock shelters in the area were recommended for further exploration.
Rio Tinto’s response? Yeah, nah, it’s in the way of a fast buck. Let’s blow it up. (I paraphrase slightly).
It seems that Indigenous civilisations did not build temples in Australia. Their spiritual life was woven into the temples nature had already provided - the rocks, trees, sky, waterways. Their way of living was profoundly different to our own. We can't point to an Indigenous building* that does what a church does for us. Does this lack of understanding on our part make their breathtakingly ancient sites less valuable? Less extraordinary?
Why don’t we value the historical treasures on this continent? When will our short but cataclysmic history of destroying Indigenous culture become history, rather than current affairs? Because from where I’m sitting we have exactly the same mindset as our colonial forebears. We've never valued or respected the wisdom and knowledge already here. This disregard is deeply entrenched into our systems and governance, that a crime of this scale could take place in 2020. Because it is a crime, of global magnitude. This is the history of humanity itself, gone in an instant. After 46,000 years.
Nowhere else in the world can we see such evidence of a continuing human history. As Australians, we should be holding up the culture and artefacts of this land in bursting pride - saying to the rest of the world, "Look at this treasure here!"
We should be protecting and preserving it above all else. Indigenous knowledge and systems can teach us lessons we so desperately need, if we would only ask to be taught.
How dare a mining company blow up something so rare and irreplaceable, for their profit?
It’s a very Sorry Day indeed. Australians, we need to get angry. This can't keep happening on our watch.
* Many Indigenous buildings were destroyed by settlers, in any case.
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