Pollution is threatening some of the world’s oldest rock carvings

Scientists fear climate change and mining contamination could destroy Murujuga—Australia’s next UNESCO site—within a century.

Published 12 Apr 2022, 09:52 BST
Burrup Peninsula Hills, Pilbara, Western Australia
Located in western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula, Murujuga is one of the world’s most significant rock art regions, with an estimated one million petroglyphs created more than 40,000 years ago.
Photograph by Viktor Posnov, Alamy Stock Photo

On a remote peninsula in Western Australia, a 16-hour drive from the nearest city, 30,000-year-old faces stare at the rare visitor to this wild location. Those human depictions are part of Murujuga, one of the world’s largest collections of ancient rock art. These artefacts are 10 times older than the pyramids of Egypt.

Dating back tens of thousands of years, this cluster of one million images on the Burrup Peninsula is like an artistic encyclopaedia, depicting human and environmental evolution. Carved into rocks are images of changing landscapes, tribal customs, and now-extinct species such as the Tasmanian tiger and fat-tailed kangaroo. These petroglyphs also reveal the mythology of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, Aboriginal Australians.

Although this extraordinary place is little known, even to most Australians, it is now gaining recognition for two contrasting reasons. There’s excitement around the tentative UNESCO World Heritage listing of Murujuga, which could drive a tourism boom. That is tempered, however, by grave warnings from rock art scientists that Murujuga could be destroyed within a century by pollution from the massive and growing industrial precinct that surrounds it.

Such a catastrophe is not unprecedented in Western Australia (WA), the economy of which relies on resource extraction. Two years ago, the world’s second biggest mining company, Rio Tinto, blasted a sacred 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock art shelter, Juukan Gorge, as it expanded an iron ore project. That atrocity occurred about 140 miles south of Murujuga.

Rock art for the ages

Both of those rock art sites are located in the Pilbara. This rugged region in WA’s north features towering gorges, serrated mountains, vast plains of red earth, and many multibillion-dollar mines. WA is among the most sparsely populated territories on the planet. It has almost four times the land area of France, yet is home to only 2.6 million people, about 80 percent of whom live in the state capital Perth, and less than 4 percent of whom are Aboriginal.

The rock carvings at Murujuga include depictions of human-like figures, human faces, and animals that inhabited the region thousands of years ago.
Photograph by Suzanne Long, Alamy Stock Photo

Even richer than the Pilbara’s resources of iron ore and liquid natural gas is its Aboriginal heritage. Since more than 50,000 years before the British brutally colonised Australia, this region has been inhabited by the Ngarda-Ngarli people. That is the collective term for the Aboriginal traditional owner groups of Murujuga—the Ngarluma, Yaburara, Mardudhunera, Yindjibarndi, and the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.

It was these people who named Murujuga, which covers the Dampier Archipelago and adjacent Burrup Peninsula. There, one of the world’s most important collections of petroglyphs was created over thousands of years, says Benjamin Smith, Professor of World Rock Art at University of Western Australia.

(Thousands of Bronze Age petroglyphs provide clues about ancient society.)

Of the other significant rock art sites in the world—from 7,000-year-old carvings in Norway to 25,000-year-old cave paintings in Brazil and 13,000-year-old paintings in Zimbabwe—none rival Murujuga for volume or continuity, he says. “What makes Murujuga special is the density and absolute amount of rock art,” Smith says. “The art also has a longer sequence than any of these other sites, extending from recent times back at least 40,000 years, probably 50,000 years.”

Rock art researchers so far have catalogued only 3 percent of Murujuga’s total area, an ongoing project that has recorded 50,000 images, Smith says. There could be up to 2 million petroglyphs at Murujuga.

As well as being majestic works of art, these carvings provide remarkable scientific insights. “Murujuga has some of the oldest known images of the human face and a series of extinct animals,” Smith says. “The changing fauna within the art shows massive climatic and environmental changes over time. The site was once more than 60 miles inland. Now it is a peninsula surrounded by sea.”

According to the mythology of the Ngarda-Ngarli people, Murujuga’s rock art was shaped by the Marrga ancestral creator beings. These spirits helped to shape the natural world. They also inhabit the Dreamtime, a set of legends and beliefs that underpin Aboriginal culture, explaining creation and offering a guidebook to human life.

Cut into Murujuga’s rocks are Dreamtime stories thousands of years old. Yet this rock art remains greatly relevant to Aboriginals, says Marduthenera people custodian Raelene Cooper. To outsiders, Murujuga’s rocks may appear to be inanimate objects. But to her people they “hold DNA, a living, breathing, spiritual energy.”

“The rock art tells the stories of evolution and are a biblical archive of our sacred ancient history,” Cooper says. “They carry and hold a deep connection to Mother Earth.”

Murujuga explains the past, present, and future to new generations, says Belinda Churnside, a Ngarluma custodian on the board of the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation (MAC), which aims to represent the interests of the site’s traditional owners. “This rock art is from the beginning of time to the end of time,” Churnside says.

The fight to preserve Murujuga

Yet in a physical sense, Murujuga’s future is bleak, says Smith. Pollution generated by huge and expanding industrial complexes on the Burrup Peninsula threaten the ancient site. “If the pollution levels are allowed to continue at current levels, serious damage will be done to the rock surfaces of Murujuga and quickly,” he says.

Experts believe the Burrup Peninsula and surrounding Dampier Archipelago have the highest concentration of rock art in the world.
Photograph by Suzanne Long, Alamy Stock Photo

Some Aboriginal groups are opposing the Woodside company’s planned Scarborough gas field development. Cooper claims toxic emissions from that project would damage Murujuga. “We can physically see the destructive consequences from chemical pollution and greenhouse emissions [from existing projects],” she says. A Woodside spokesperson has said the company supports the Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Program run by MAC and the Western Australia government.

Yet amid this controversy, local communities remain enthusiastic about Murujuga’s pending UNESCO nomination and its potential as a tourist attraction. Cooper and Churnside both say the Ngarda-Ngarli people would be honoured if their land became a UNESCO site. “To be given a global platform to share our ancient sacred history to the world is remarkable and elevates the struggles and trauma of the past,” Cooper says.

(Dreamlike photos of Australia's unspoiled paradise)

With plans to submit the final UNESCO application by early next year, local authorities are preparing for an expected influx of visitors to Murujuga. To accommodate them, a tourist zone is being created at Conzinc Bay. A new road would access that coastal location in the northwest of Murujuga, which currently can be reached only by all-wheel-drive vehicles. The planned hub would be the Murujuga Living Knowledge Centre. MAC chief executive Peter Jeffries says this facility would “tell stories from the stones and guide visitors through the ancient land that is Murujuga.”

Some improvements to visitor infrastructure have already been completed, including the creation of the Ngajarli Art Viewing Trail. This 2,300-foot-long raised boardwalk features viewing platforms and signs explaining the rock art at Ngajarli Gorge. The ochre-coloured rocks here are embellished by petroglyphs up to 47,000 years old, which depict goannas, turtles, kangaroos, and megafauna. “That [boardwalk] lets visitors view the petroglyphs up close while protecting them from degradation,” says Natasha Mahar, CEO at Australia’s Northwest Tourism.

If Murujuga’s UNESCO application succeeds, many more international tourists are likely to come eye to eye with the 30,000-year-old human faces telling the ancient story of an entire people and their cherished land—marvels etched by hand, imbued with wisdom, and designed to enthral in perpetuity.

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer and shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.

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