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Kimberley rock art threatened by fire

19 Jan 2016
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An online article by Steve Holland on WANews - Negligent burning in WA's north threatening rock art - reports on the fire-bombings and ground burnings by the state government that may be causing irreparable damage to ancient rock art and in some cases threatening lives and homes. Fairfax Media reveals the government fires have devastated the environment and damaged the world-renowned Bradshaw collection on the Kimberley Plateau.

Bradshaw or Gwion Gwion paintings of the Kimberley region of Australia

Aerial fire-bombing and ground burning is ongoing in far-north Western Australia as part of the government's fire prevention strategy but the collateral damage is having a devastating impact on the region.

Traditional owner and elder Ju Ju 'Burriwee' Wilson said she was saddened to see the art and sacred works of her ancestors destroyed by the burn-offs. Burriwee, whose mother and grandmother would take her to see the art as a child, said she is worried her culture and heritage is being destroyed.

Burriwee said there were 8,742 known examples of rock art in the Kimberley but their future looks bleak, with damaged sites stretching from Kununurra, along the Mitchell Plateau, across the Bungle Bungles to Faraway Bay.

For Burriwee - and many others - the land and the art have spiritual values that represent environmental phenomena, beyond the comprehension of most. She said the fires threatened sacred traditions, rooted in Dreamtime, which resonate with current environmental concerns.

It's not only Aboriginals who value the rock art but scientists, historians and archaeologists who value the ancient markings of early civilisation. Archaeologist Lee Scott-Virtue has been surveying the area for 30 years, focusing on recording rock art.

"Sadly, an incredible art that should be listed at a World Heritage level and may be 40,000-plus years old - sustained for such a long period of time - is being hugely effected by the way we are managing fire. It's having a devastating impact on the art. The burning is accelerating its demise."

Ms Scott-Virtue said her research had determined that 27 to 30 per cent of the rock art in the Bungle Bungles had already been lost. "This rock art is critical. It has the potential to provide a real answer to the way ancestors of all of us moved across the oceans and settled in vast areas. It could provide us with 70,000 years of answers. This heritage is critical to indigenous culture."

The Bradshaw collection of rock art, widely regarded as the oldest figurative paintings in the world, was recently damaged by fire, which locals claim was a result of the government's program.

"Two major aerial burns have occurred in this area since my first visit to the site in 2009. The damage from the last fire did the most damage due to the increase in cane grass around the site and the fact that a large tree quite close to the site was burnt as well."

Emeritus Professor Jack Pettigrew, from the University of Queensland, is a biologist who believes the rock art is a valuable resource capable of unlocking scientific mysteries.

"The Bradshaws are a big mystery. The Bradshaws are alive. The original paintings have been replaced by living organisms." Professor Pettigrew said the paintings, depicting marsupial lions and bats, giant wombats and other ancient and extinct creatures, attract tourists and scientists from around the world. "It gives us a window on our early heritage in Australia. And the art is so good it tells you about the world, and what it was like at the time." 

Kimberley residents told Fairfax Media the damage caused by the burning was also having a detrimental impact on the environment, causing erosion and pollution to run into water systems. Others said encroaching fires, sparked by prescribed burnings, caused them to fear for the safety of their homes and lives.


Visit the Bradshaw Paintings section in the Australian Rock Art Archive:



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