Australian Indigenous Group Steps Up Campaign to Protect Sacred Rock Art

Australian Indigenous Group Steps Up Campaign to Protect Sacred Rock Art


Australian Indigenous Group Steps up Campaign to Protect Sacred Rock Art

Rock art from across Australia tells a compelling tale of humanity's evolution. Unfortunately, it is vulnerable to vandalism and graffiti as well as development projects and mining operations.

Professor Paul Tacon is dedicated to safeguarding this cultural heritage and increasing its visibility. As chair of PERAHU research unit at Griffith University, his efforts are helping preserve this valuable resource.

Save Our Songlines

'Save Our Songlines' is an initiative spearheaded by traditional custodians of Western Australia's Burrup peninsula, home to one of the world's greatest collections of Aboriginal rock art (petroglyphs). These artworks draw from centuries of Indigenous knowledge about the region's natural, material and symbolic life-worlds.

These knowledges were created by the Creator Spirits of the Dreaming and preserved in Murujuga's petroglyphs. Some of these 'Dreaming Pathways' contain ancestral stories as well as information about natural landscapes, plants, animals and seasonality which are essential for Indigenous peoples to survive and understand their land.

Murujuga's petroglyphs form part of an intricate and longstanding relationship between its people, the landscape, and spiritual realms (Molyneaux & Vitebsky, 2001; Kerwin 2010; Gammage 2011). This cultural connection is deeply embedded into everyday Indigenous life as well as in its economic, artistic, and ritual practices.

Since colonisation, governments and mining companies have relentlessly worked to erase petroglyphs and their songlines - as victims in the historical crossfire of modernism and industrial development. Eventually, however, these ancient knowledge systems reasserted themselves against this modernist discourse and system.

Raelene Cooper, a Mardudhunera custodian and founder of Save Our Songlines, expressed that anthropogenic activities in Murujuga have an adverse impact on its natural integrity. These include pollution, over-extraction of minerals and water, as well as destruction to biodiversity.

"Our moral duty as citizens is to safeguard our culture and heritage, which must be done in an inclusive, respectful and responsible manner," they added. 'It is unfortunate that the state government hasn't done more to guarantee the protection of our cultural heritage."

In July, Cooper and another Kuruma Marthadunera custodian Josie Alec traveled to Geneva to address the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They requested a halt to construction of gas giant Woodside's Scarborough gas hub on Murujuga until 'gag clauses' in the BMIEA were removed and WA government representatives had been consulted.


Australia boasts an incredible variety of Aboriginal rock art, from intricate and delicate pieces to more abstract works that express human creativity. While this art form plays an integral role in Australia's cultural heritage, it faces multiple threats from both natural elements and human intervention alike.

One of the greatest worries is the potential loss of rock art in America. According to estimates, half of America's estimated 100,000 rock art sites are unprotected and could disappear within 50 years.

Traditional Owners have a strong desire to protect their heritage and the art on these rocks, yet they face numerous obstacles. Development in mining and agriculture industries has had a significant effect on their landscape; additionally, tourism has seen an uptick in northern Australia which puts pressure on traditional owners to provide authentic experiences for visitors.

Promoting Indigenous tourism has led to the creation of several programs designed to protect and enhance cultural significance of rock art and other key sites, such as community-based Aboriginal ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs).

Indigenous rangers in Northern Territory have found ways to collaborate with Traditional Owners on managing rock art sites without relying on external agencies or experts. For instance, Njanjma Rangers from Tjukurpa (Anangu law) communities use the Stepping Stones for Heritage approach when developing conservation management plans for prominent rock art sites that are integral to their culture and have meaningful stories associated with them.

The IPAs and ranger programs have been successful because they involve and empower local communities, enabling them to manage their land together with Indigenous custodians. This relationship is essential for conserving Aboriginal rock art.

A ranger's role is to protect a site from both natural and human threats, such as erosion, termites, and other forms of natural degradation. They also look for graffiti on the site which could indicate an ongoing issue.

The ARC Laureate Fellowship

This campaign seeks to protect Indigenous rock art on the Burrup Peninsula region of Western Australia, where gas exploration and development could potentially impact ancient artworks. Thousands of Indigenous people live here and it's a sensitive environment due to its stunning landscapes, pristine beaches and abundant natural resources.

Professor Tacon, one of the world's foremost rock art experts and an advocate for Save Our Songlines campaign, believes it is critical to protect sacred Aboriginal sites from damage or destruction caused by industrial development. He holds that traditional custodians of these places should have a voice in how they are safeguarded and preserved.

He has been actively engaged in protecting Australian rock art for decades, believing it to be essential to our understanding of human evolution. To explore and document this art form, he has ventured to remote regions of Australia and led numerous expeditions.

In 2008, he joined a team that documented rock art at Djulirri rock shelter gallery in Arnhem Land's Wellington Range. This site now contains over 3100 paintings, prints and stencils, many of which feature unique animal or bird stencils not seen anywhere else in the world.

Research funded by an Australian Research Council project entitled Picturing Change was part of Professor Tacon's lifelong mission to document and preserve Australia's remarkable rock art, which included a trek into Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park.

On his trips to the region, Professor Ping has also met with Indigenous leaders and elders who are championing protection of their sacred sites from development projects. Additionally, they have helped raise awareness of the significance of their culture and heritage, encouraging researchers to work towards sustainable solutions that do not harm their art form or environment.

Another critical step in protecting these sites is the digitization of their art, and Professor Tacon is proud to have been part of Google's daring Global Art Project. Through this venture, the company scanned images from sites across Australia and made them accessible online to everyone.

Chemical Fingerprints

When a group of local residents launched a campaign to investigate their town's long-term pollution legacy from the Tonawanda Coke plant, they quickly found themselves at the center of an environmental movement. Not only did their efforts result in a federal lawsuit and a shutdown of the coke plant, but the effort also led to a first-of-its-kind "chemical fingerprinting" study that could have far-reaching impacts to hold polluters accountable and prevent towns like Tonawanda from becoming toxic dumping grounds in the future.

The chemical fingerprinting study, which began in 2017, has already uncovered the presence of pollutants in some areas of Tonawanda. These include chemicals associated with the coke production process, specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are more complex forms of the simple aromatic hydrocarbon benzene.

One of the main goals of this research is to use these chemical fingerprints to detect specific pollutants that might be present at the site of an oil spill, or another place where a significant amount of pollution has been released. This type of forensic investigation, known as source apportionment, has been used successfully to identify polluted areas around the world, but it can be difficult and time-consuming to develop the fingerprints needed for this task.

So, the researchers developed a novel approach to analyzing these fingerprints using a method called "factor analysis." The factor analysis method is similar to the technique used in psychology to analyze the latent variables in a dataset. It divides the total variation into that common to a number of factors and a residual value unique to each component, then iteratively maximizes explained variance per component.

Using FA, the team was able to detect a correlation between heterozygosity and relatedness in a sample of chemical fingerprints. Heterozygosity was significantly correlated with the number of chemicals in each individual's chemical fingerprint, and relatedness was correlated with a small subset of chemicals. These findings suggest that different types of semiochemicals can encode genetic information.

However, the chemical fingerprints can still be influenced by other factors, such as a person's body condition or their microbiome. This suggests that the way heterozygosity and relatedness are encoded in a fingerprint could be different for different people, which has implications for understanding mother-offspring communication, kin recognition, and mate choice.

Related Articles