The world’s largest collection of ancient rock carvings is under threat

On a remote peninsula in Western Australia, a 16-hour drive from the nearest town, the 30,000-year-old stares at the rare visitor to this wild site. These human drawings are part of the Murujuga, one of the largest collections of ancient rock art in the world. These artifacts are ten times older than the pyramids of Egypt.

Dating back 47,000 years, this collection of 1 million images on the Burup Peninsula serves as an artistic encyclopedia depicting human and environmental evolution. Carved into the rocks are images of changing landscapes, tribal customs and now extinct species such as the Tasmanian tiger and the fat-tailed kangaroo. These rock carvings also reveal the legends of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Australian Aborigines.

Although this exceptional place is little known, even to most Australians, it is now gaining recognition for two contradictory reasons. There is excitement about the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List of Murugaja, which could lead to a tourism boom. However, this was mitigated by the dire warnings from rock art scholars that Murujuga could be destroyed within a century through pollution from the huge and growing industrial area that surrounds it.

Such a disaster is not unprecedented in Western Australia (WA), whose economy depends on resource extraction. Two years ago, the world’s second largest mining company, Rio Tinto, blew up a 46,000-year-old sacred rock art sanctuary, Goukan Gorge, as it expanded its iron ore project. The atrocities took place about 140 miles south of Moroguja.

rock art through the ages

Both of these rock art sites are located in Pilbara. This rugged region of northwest Australia features towering valleys, jagged mountains, vast plains of red earth, and numerous multi-billion dollar mines. WA is among the most densely populated areas on the planet. Its land area is four times the size of Texas, yet it 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 them are indigenous.

The indigenous heritage is richer than the iron ore and liquid natural gas resources of Pilbara. More than 50,000 years ago before Britain brutally colonized Australia, this region was inhabited by the Ngarda-Ngarlei people. This is the collective term for the groups of traditional owners of the aborigines of Muruga – Ngarluma, Yaburara, Mardudhunera, Yindjibarndi and Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo.

It was these people who called the Murujuga, which covers the Dampier Archipelago and the neighboring Borup Peninsula. There, one of the world’s most important groups of rock reliefs was created over thousands of years, says Benjamin Smith, a professor at the University of Western Australia who studies global rock art.

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

Among the world’s other important rock art sites — 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 — Muruga has no rival for scale or continuity, he says. “What makes Muruguja special is the density and sheer amount of rock art,” Smith says. “The art also has a sequence longer than any of these other sites, stretching from modern times to at least 40,000 years, possibly 50,000 years.”

Rock art researchers have so far classified only 3 percent of the total area of ​​Muruguja, an ongoing project that has recorded 50,000 images, Smith says. There can be as many as two million petroglyphs in Muruja.

In addition to being great works of art, these sculptures provide fascinating scientific insights. “Murujuga has some of the earliest known images of a human face and a series of extinct animals,” Smith says. “The changing animals within the art show massive climatic and environmental changes over time. The site was once more than 60 miles inland. Now it is a peninsula surrounded by the sea.”

According to the legends of the Ngarda-Ngarli people, the Murujuga rock art was formed by the creative Marrga beings. These spirits helped shape the natural world. They also live Dreamtime, a collection of myths and beliefs that support Aboriginal culture, explain creation and provide a guide to human life.

Cut into the rocks of Murujuga are Dreamtime stories that are thousands of years old. However, this rock art is still closely related to the aborigines, he says The people of Mardothenera are the guardian of Raylene Cooper. To outsiders, the Murujuga rocks may seem inanimate objects. But for her people “they have DNA, living, breathing spiritual energy.”

“Rock art tells stories of evolution and is a biblical archive of our sacred ancient history,” Cooper says. “They hold and are deeply connected to Mother Earth.”

(The oldest rock art in North America may be 14,800 years old.)

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

The fight to preserve Murujuga

However, in physical terms, Muruguja’s future is bleak, Smith says. Pollution from the huge and expanding industrial complexes on the Burup Peninsula threatens the ancient site. “If pollution levels are allowed to continue at current levels, massive damage to the rocky surfaces in Murujuga will be done quickly,” he says.

Some Indigenous groups oppose the development of Woodside’s planned $12 billion Scarborough gas field. Cooper claims that toxic emissions from this project will harm Muruguja. We can physically see the devastating consequences of chemical pollution and greenhouse emissions [from existing projects]’, she says. A spokesperson for Woodside said the company supports the Murujuga Rock Art Monitoring Program run by Mac and the Western Australian government.

However, amid this controversy, local communities remain enthusiastic about Murujuga’s highly anticipated UNESCO nomination and potential as a tourist attraction. Cooper and Churnside say the Ngarda-Ngarli people would be honored if their land became a UNESCO site. “Giving you a global platform to share our ancient sacred history with the world is wonderful and lifts the struggles and traumas of the past,” Cooper says.

(Discover amazing natural wonders across Australia.)

With plans to submit a final UNESCO application by early next year, local authorities are preparing for an expected influx of visitors to Moruguja. To accommodate them, a tourist area is being created in Conzinc Bay. A new road will reach this coastal location in northwest Moruguja, which is currently only accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles. The planned center will be the Muruguja Living Knowledge Centre. Al-Mutawa and Al-Qadi CEO Peter Jeffreys says the facility will “tell stories from the stones and guide visitors through the ancient land of Murujuga.”

Some infrastructure improvements for visitors have already been completed, including the construction of the Ngajarli Art view Trail. This 2,300-foot high trail features platforms and signs explaining the rock art of the Ngajarli Gorge. The colorful rocks here are decorated with 47,000-year-old petroglyphs depicting guanas, turtles, kangaroos, and megafauna. ‘Which – which [boardwalk] It allows visitors to view the petroglyphs up close while protecting them from deterioration,” says Natasha Mahar, CEO of Northwest Tourism Australia.

If the UNESCO Murujuga application succeeds, more international tourists are likely to encounter the 30,000-year-old human faces that tell the ancient story of an entire people and their dear land – masterpieces carved by hand, imbued with wisdom and designed to mesmerize forever.

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

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