Australia’s greatest ancient Aboriginal rock art is at risk of being damaged or destroyed because it sits at the epicenter of the country’s resources boom, experts say.

The etchings of men and animals on the rocks of the Burrup Peninsula, some of which are believed to be up to 30,000 years old, lie in Western Australia’s remote and mineral-laden Pilbara region.

Images carved onto the red rocks scattering the landscape include kangaroos, lizards and emu tracks as well as the extinct native Tasmanian tiger which died out on the mainland 6,000 years ago.

Among the most significant panels are those showing human faces and activities and what experts believe are mythical figures.

“One of the pictures is depicting movement, is showing a man climbing a tree; probably to go hunting a possum or something like that,” says archaeologist and anthropologist Sue Smalldon.

“The depiction of movement is quite rare in historic art around the world.”

But the peninsula is also seeing increasing industrial activity, including a gas processing plant, a fertiliser factory and iron ore port facilities, making it the only place in Australia to feature on the World Monuments Fund’s list of the most endangered sites.

Smalldon believes the rock art has suffered since mining took off in the Pilbara, which holds some of the richest mineral deposits on earth, in the 1960s.

“We had nearly one million panels of rock art,” Smalldon said.

“That’s what so important about it. Yes, it’s important to culture, yes, it’s important aesthetically and for other reasons. But from an international perspective, it’s the greatest concentration of rock art in the world.”

She said the threat to the art has intensified in recent years as mining and energy companies drain the region of iron ore, natural gas and other resources to feed the huge demand for raw materials from Asia.

Madeleine Coorey
Discovery