What is an Aboriginal sacred site in Australia?
Aboriginal sacred sites have come under the global spotlight since Rio Tinto Ltd legally blew up ancient rock shelters showing human history stretching back at least 46,000 years to expand an iron ore mine. For Indigenous Australians, sacred sites are places within the landscape that have a special meaning or significance.
Sites give meaning to the natural landscape, and anchor cultural values, and spiritual and family-based relationships in the land, according to the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. They can be tangible, such as middens or waterways, or intangible and connected to stories, language, song, ceremony or other practices.
“As custodians of the oldest living culture on earth, our people have an ancient lineal connection to country, to culture and to each other,” said Rodney Carter, chairperson of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council.
“As traditional owners we have both inherited and we create cultural heritage. We create artefacts and materials, live traditions and spirituality, and imbed it all within the landscape ... That is why all country is sacred.”
Indigenous Australians comprise about 3.3% of Australia’s 25.5 million people, split between more than 500 clans and speaking more than 100 languages. Evidence suggests their ancestors arrived in Australia more than 65,000 years ago, making them part of the earliest human migration out of Africa.
It can be difficult even for Indigenous communities to assess the significance of sites, said Jamie Lowe, chief executive of Australia’s National Native Title Council.
Part of the difficulty in defining and registering them is the importance of secrecy as a means of custom and protection. Knowledge of such sites can be restricted by gender and seniority, with some places carrying varying significance for different groups.
“It must be First Nations people who get to define it,” Lowe said.
Aboriginal traditional beliefs extend back to the Dreamtime, or time of creation, when the travels of ancestral beings across the land and sea created the physical and social world that people now inhabit.
These beings often took the form of humans or of animals, and sites related to creation stories extend to ceremonial sites.
Examples of sacred sites can be found in natural features such as hills, rocks, waterholes, trees, plains, lakes, and billabongs, according to the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority.
In coastal and sea areas, sacred sites may include features which lie both above and below the water.
Archaeologists in July reported finding hundreds of stone tools submerged off the Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia, showing evidence of people living in the area when it was dry land more than 7,000 years ago.
Some Aboriginal heritage sites carry traces of human development, such as cutting and grinding tools, stones and rock-art engravings that date back tens of thousands of years.
“Birthing trees for example, when a baby was born, they would take the bush tucker, the bush seed, and the placenta, the mother and the father, and plant that tree. And that tree would be the child’s tree for life and beyond,” Indigenous woman Amanda Mahomet said.
($1 = 1.3669 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Melanie Burton and Shruti Sonal; Editing by Tom Brown and Lincoln Feast.)