Devil tooth among significant finds at Juukan cave site

Ethan JamesAAP
Fresh excavation work at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia has turned up some significant finds. (HANDOUT/SCARP ARCHAEOLOGY AND PKKP ABORIGINAL CORPORATION)
Camera IconFresh excavation work at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia has turned up some significant finds. (HANDOUT/SCARP ARCHAEOLOGY AND PKKP ABORIGINAL CORPORATION) Credit: AAP

A Tasmanian devil tooth, artefacts and braided hair are among “mind blowing” finds from excavations of 46,000-year-old Indigenous rock shelters in Western Australia destroyed by mining.

The Juukan Gorge caves in the Pilbara were blown up in May 2020 by Rio Tinto, devastating traditional custodians and causing global outrage.

Re-excavation of the Juukan-2 rock shelter has been ongoing for almost two years.

The work has unearthed braided human hair, a Tasmanian devil tooth, shell bead, quartz artefacts held together by resin and several special crescent-shaped stone artefacts.

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Chairperson of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) Land Committee Burchell Hayes said the finds further demonstrated the extreme cultural and scientific significance of Juukan Gorge.

“These significant discoveries ... have the potential to rewrite what we know about the deep past of the Pilbara,” he said on Tuesday.

Excavations in 2008 and 2014 uncovered 5000-year-old braided human hair, a kangaroo bone sharpened into a point and thousands of other significant cultural material.

Excavation director and associate professor Michael Slack said some of the individual items excavated were enough to make the site highly significant.

“The fact we have a collection of these items all from one small part of the planned excavation demonstrates what the PKK people have been saying all along - that this is a very special and important place,” he said.

Prof Slack said there was no previous physical evidence of Tasmanian devils living in the Pilbara and the last evidence of the marsupial existing in WA was in the state’s southwest, 3000 years ago.

“We excavated a really diverse range of artefacts in 2014 and we have added more rare artefacts to the assemblage through this excavation, like the shell bead,” he said.

“Finding this is proof that people living here visited or traded with people living on the coast hundreds of kilometres away.”

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation is working with Rio Tinto to remediate the land.

“We weren’t sure how extensive the damage was until we got to work,” corporation land and heritage management director Jordan Ralph said.

“While the structure of the rock shelter was destroyed, it is pleasing to see the archaeological deposit is largely intact and was spared any major disturbance by the blast.”

Re-excavation has focused on about a quarter of the shelter floor in an area not previously worked.

The project is planned to take at least another 12 months while the recent findings will be presented to the Society for American Archaeology conference in New Orleans at the weekend.

The cave destruction prompted a Rio Tinto apology, a parliamentary inquiry and new Aboriginal heritage laws in WA.

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