Email Discovery of ancient Aboriginal remains confirms burial grounds on western Cape York
Archaeologists have confirmed ancient human remains, potentially up to 6,000 years old, are interred in burial mounds at a site long regarded as culturally significant by the Tjungundji people of western Cape York.
The origins of the sand mounds in and around Mapoon, an Indigenous community in remote far-north Queensland, have long been debated by researchers.
Some believe they were naturally occurring or created by birdlife, while others suggested they were human-made.
Rio Tinto owns and operates the Weipa bauxite mine on western Cape York Peninsula in Queensland.
Aunty Diane Nicholls said her people always knew the burial mounds held the remains of her people's ancestors.
"It's [important] to our identity and to our heritage, knowing that our ancestors did exist here and held ceremonial practice and rituals," Aunty Diane said.
"The Elders always knew when they were growing up here in the dormitories in the mission days, they knew gravesites were here."
Now there is scientific confirmation.
Radar technology gives insight into ancient burial customs
The Western Cape York Communities Trust funded archaeological consultant Veritas Heritage to investigate the site in consultation with family groups.
Initial ground-penetrating radar investigation of 11 mounds showed many included human interments, and lead archaeologist Dr Mary-Jean Sutton said initial observations suggested some were around 6,000 years old.
"We're thinking Holocene [epoch]," she said.
"That's around the same time as the pyramids in Egypt and the Neolithic [era] in Britain, but we don't know that.
"It could be earlier; it could also be much, much later."
Researchers employed ground-penetrating radar and magnetometer technology to map the inner contents of the mounds without disturbing them.
The images gave a glimpse into ancient burial practices and changes in cultural practices over time.
Dr Sutton said the radar identified layers within the mounds and items in the grave sites including coral, flowers, and spears used to decorate the ancient resting places.
"It's not natural coral. We've had a geomorphologist look at the coral and he doesn't believe it's natural. It's been harvested and put on the mounds deliberately," Dr Sutton said.
"It's indicating that Aboriginal burial practices in Mapoon are of great antiquity and time.
"We've never understood the complexity of the cultural connection in Mapoon. It's re-writing the thinking."
Discovery prompts calls for better protections for burial sites
It is estimated there are hundreds of similar burial mounds scattered through the Mapoon community and across the Western Cape.
Archaeologists say the suspected burial mounds require further investigation while traditional owners are calling for increased heritage protection.
"To know these mounds are now here — and they've been here for years and years — but now, because mining's happening, there's got to be some protection and a law to these things," Aunty Diane said.
Despite the community's concerns, global miner Rio Tinto has assured Mapoon residents a clear process is already in place to ensure the mine works with traditional owners to identify and manage cultural heritage.
"As cultural heritage items and sites are identified through pre-mining archaeological surveys, plans for the management and protection are developed and agreed through the [Western Cape Communities Co-Existence Agreement] processes," a company spokesperson said.