Media Release - 8 April 2022

Yinhawangka People Celebrate 50,000 Years of Life in Pilbara Thanks to New Evidence

Yinhawangka People are celebrating findings from an archaeological excavation on a sacred site in the eastern Pilbara which affirms the presence of Yinhawangka People in the region for more than 50,000 years. Analysis of stone tools, charcoal and bone collected from the Yirra rockshelter at Rio Tinto’s Eastern Channar mine, revealed the 50,000-plus year habitation, amazingly, throughout the height of the last Ice Age.

The project was led by Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) in collaboration with Archae-aus heritage consultants, and researchers from the University of Western Australia. YAC commissioned the project with funding from Rio Tinto as the first ever Traditional Owner-led, non-mining related, heritage excavation on Yinhawangka Country.

YAC Chairperson Mr Halloway Smirke said, “Yirra has great significance not only to the Yinhawangka people, but also to our Wangarada (desert family) and Ngarngarada (coastal family). We hope that Yirra will help us tell our ancestral story to Australia and our future generations. We would still be visiting this site if it wasn’t for the mining leases. All Pilbara groups should have this kind of science work done on cultural sites. Important sites like Yirra need to be protected, especially when they turn out to be amongst the oldest known places of human habitation in Australia.”

Archae-aus Excavation Project Manager and Director Ms Fiona Hook, who originally excavated the site with her husband, the late Dr Bruce Veitch, and Traditional Owners over 20 years ago, said, “We knew at the time the site was special as it contained intact hearths from the last Ice Age. There was no charcoal left to date after 23,000 years ago. We knew the old people were there before that as we found artefacts below the oldest date. We’ve now proven that beyond doubt.”

“When the old dates were returned, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I’ve worked with three generations of Yinhawangka People at this place. It is such an immense relief that we finally got to return to the site and excavate Yirra again after 20 years of waiting,” said Ms Hook.

The Yirra site is situated on a rock face west of a land bridge, at Rio Tinto’s Channar operation.  Rio Tinto worked closely with Traditional Owners to support the recent cultural and archaeological works at Yirra. Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Simon Trott said, “This is a wonderful outcome for the Yinhawangka people and we welcome this incredible discovery. “We acknowledge the significance of Yirra and are committed to working in partnership with the Yinhawangka people to ensure it’s preserved for future generations.

“These findings at Yirra are a major archaeological breakthrough of international significance, expanding knowledge of Aboriginal occupation in the Pilbara. “As part of our ongoing commitment to celebrating and caring for cultural heritage and Country with Traditional Owners, Rio Tinto is planning to fund further Traditional Owner-led cultural research and archaeological excavations.”

Initial dating results indicate that this is one of the oldest sites yet found in Australia. Yirra is proof of Aboriginal occupation in the arid region for more than 50,000 years and remarkably, throughout the height of the last Ice Age. Professor Peter Veth from the University of Western Australia who led the excavation team said, “The early age range of this site is extremely important to the Traditional Owners of Yirra. Radiocarbon dating had shown the age of the site reached 23,000 years with hearths laid down during the Last Glacial Maximum. By expanding the excavation and using new dating methods, such as optically stimulated luminescence dating, the age of the Yirra site has been extended to the radiocarbon ‘barrier’ – and beyond 50,000 years.”

YAC Heritage Manager and archeologist and anthropologist Dr Anna Fagan said, “This was the first study of its kind to be done, not for mining compliance or heritage clearance, but for Yinhawangka People and Country. The Yirra findings help overturn and reset ideas of desert presence in Australia and I’m confident in global narratives.”

“I am certain that future Traditional Owner-led, scientifically scrupulous, and collaborative projects of this kind will only reinforce Yinhawangka’s enduring custodianship, culture and deep-time story: that these are their lands, and they have always been here,” said Dr Fagan. Prof. Veth said that “There will be an ongoing program of exhaustive dating and analyses of the site and its cultural assemblages as a collaboration between the Traditional Owners and researchers. These studies and community voices will feed into community reports and peer-reviewed publications over the next couple of years.”

YAC will make more information available about the Yirra project on its website in the future.

Media Contact:

Cameron Morse, FTI Consulting
+61 8 9321 8533 | +61 433 886 871

Mike Groves, FTI Consulting
+61 8 9321 8533 | +61 427 065 551

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