Mining giant Rio Tinto has apologised for blowing up 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves in Western Australia dating back to the last Ice Age.
The Juukan Gorge caves, in the Pilbara region, were destroyed last Sunday as Rio Tinto expanded an iron ore project agreed with the authorities.
Many prehistoric artefacts have been found at the remote heritage site.
“We are sorry for the distress we have caused,” said Chris Salisbury, the firm’s iron ore chief executive.
“We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP),” he said. The PKKP are the traditional owners of the site.
“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership. As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.”
Artefacts found there include a belt made from human hair, analysis of which showed a direct link going back 4,000 years between the PKKP and the prehistoric cave-dwellers.
“Today we also recognise that a review is needed in relation to the management of heritage in Western Australia more broadly,” Mr Salisbury said.
Besides iron ore, the Anglo-Australian giant has many mining interests in Australia, including bauxite for aluminium, diamonds and uranium.
Last week a PKKP representative, John Ashburton, said losing the site was a “devastating blow”.
“There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one… its importance cannot be underestimated,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
“Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land.”
Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs Ken Wyatt, who is Aboriginal, said it was “incomprehensible” that the blast had gone ahead, but added that it appeared to be a “genuine mistake”. State laws had failed in this instance, he said.