At some stage in every Australian child’s life, whether it is when we learn about the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Colosseum in Ancient Rome, an appreciation for the scale of human history develops.
It is an understanding of the incredible and enduring legacy of ancient civilisations that have come before us.
Every month we hitch a ride with an ABC personality as they reveal the stories that take them back to their community.
The physical remains are icons and the cultures they represent are awe-inspiring.
But very little is taught or known about the breadth of history on our own doorstep.
In fact, our own ancient sites seem to not only be unknown, but are actively destroyed.
In New South Wales, only three-and-half hours north-west of the most populated city in Australia, a large, flat rock sits perched on top of an inconspicuous hill in the middle of Yengo National Park.
Indigenous people from across the country engraved that rock as part of special ceremonies.
The carvings date back to the same time as the pyramids.
Just down the hill, there is a set of stairs that lead to a cave. Inside, there is a painting of a figure with outstretched arms and legs.
It is one of the most significant figures in Aboriginal culture: the creation spirit Baiame.
More than 4,000 years ago, people in the area painted Baiame using traditional ochres.
The spirit guided people from across the country to sacred sites, and the cave was used for ceremonies.
This cave — like many around the country — has been altered, repaired without cultural authority, and partially destroyed.
It has been wrecked by a sandblaster and wears deep cracks across its face from mine blasts.
The site was once protected by trees and scrub covering the front of the cave, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service cut them down when the cave was opened up for public display.
Wind and rain have since weathered the painting.
The cave had a lip across the bottom and was sandblasted to prevent tourists from getting too close to the painting.
But during the process of trying to preserve the sacred image, the legs on the figure and the bottom half of the cave were destroyed.
Not all the damage has been done with noble intentions.
Some of it seems plain disrespectful and suggests that little value has been placed on Indigenous heritage.
- Photo: Waylon Boney says there needs to be better protection of the Baiame Cave in Yengo National Park. (ABC: Jenia Ratcliffe)
- Photo: Ancient paintings were damaged when the white outline of the painting was drawn on to the traditional red colour. (ABC: Jenia Ratcliffe)
- Photo: Ancient paintings of boomerangs were damaged when a photographer scratched white outlines to get better photos. (ABC: Jenia Ratcliffe)
- Photo: Paintings that are thousands of years old were damaged in the Baiame Cave. (ABC: Jenia Ratcliffe)
- Photo: Waylon Boney (left) points to damaged rock markings on Map Site and shows Brooke Boney (right) where Aboriginal mobs would come to meet. (ABC: Jenia Ratcliffe)
- Photo: Lines have been scratched into a human figure on Map Site as a mouth and neck were added to what wasn’t originally there. (ABC: Jenia Ratcliffe)
Aboriginal communities left to pick up damaged history
One story told by Waylon Boney — a man who has dedicated his life to cultural preservation — is about a photographer who outlined the figure with white paint to make it stand out more for his photos.
There is another story about someone engraving a smile on the face of an Aboriginal spirit.
Imagine if someone took a bulldozer to the Colosseum, or replaced a block at the pyramids with Lego — because that is what is happening here with our historical sites.
“We need to come together and start sharing these stories with each other, start getting behind each other, to protect these carvings and the sites,” Mr Boney said.
“While ever we can’t come together, then we won’t be able to protect our culture and our heritage.”
A report in the National Indigenous Times claims in NSW between 2005 and 2009, the State Government approved 541 permits to destroy or disturb Aboriginal heritage sites.
In Tasmania, vandals destroyed hand stencils that traditional owners estimate are up to 8,000 years old.
They scratched the hand stencils out on the eve of the anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report on the experiences of people from the Stolen Generations.
In the Northern Territory, a mining company was accused of deliberately destroying a sacred site that had previously been damaged as a result of mine blasts.
In some cases, Indigenous people are also prevented from accessing or practicing appropriate ceremonies to re-engrave or re-paint significant sites.
It is then left to national parks and wildlife services to do the work themselves — often without the cultural authority required to carry out the sacred work.
The legislation around site protection is growing stronger and there are examples of fines being handed out — the mining company Xstrata was penalised for the destruction of a site and fined $81,000.
Although it is only a drop in the ocean compared to the profit turned by the company annually, it is more than what has been done previously to reprimand companies that damage sites.
There is also criticism of the amount they were fined in terms how it compares to the cost of shutting down the production of the mine in order to avoid damaging sites.
Until there are stronger legislative protections, the burden of defending Australia’s incredible history falls to communities, and individuals like Waylon.
One part of the strategy they have employed is education, because once there is a broader realisation of how special it is that Australia is home to the most incredible history — one that has outlasted the Ancient Egyptians and Romans — preserving that culture will not be considered a hindrance.
Hopefully it will be an absolute necessity.
Topics: community-and-society, land-rights, sacred-sites, aboriginal, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, indigenous-culture, environment, conservation, national-parks, regional, singleton-2330, nsw
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