Mining giant Rio Tinto has apologized after blowing up a 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site with dynamite to expand an Australian iron ore mine.
The site, in Juukan Gorge, in Western Australia state’s resource-rich Pilbara region, featured two cave systems that contained artifacts indicating tens of thousands of years of continuous human occupation.
Grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4,000-year-old braided hair were among almost 7,000 relics that had been discovered at the site, according to CNN affiliate 7News.
Rio Tinto is one of the world’s largest mining companies and has vast operations in Australia. Its iron ore mines make up more than half of its revenue.
The demolition went ahead on May 24 despite a seven-year battle by the local custodians of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People, to protect the site.
“We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP),” Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Chris Salisbury said in a statement released Sunday.
“We are sorry for the distress we have caused. Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years,” the statement said.
“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership. As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.”
Rio Tinto said in its statement that it had operated on PKKP country under a “comprehensive and mutually agreed” arrangement since 2011.
“At Juukan, in partnership with the PKKP, we followed a heritage approval process for more than 10 years. In 2014 we performed a large-scale exercise in the Juukan area to preserve significant cultural heritage artifacts, recovering approximately 7,000 objects,” it added.
But Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes said in a statement Rio Tinto was told about the significance of the site multiple times since 2013.
“The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto by PKKPAC as recently as March,” Hayes said.
He said the group only found out about Rio Tinto’s intentions on May 15. CNN Business reached out to Rio Tinto for comment on Hayes’ remarks and was directed back to the company statement.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said the “destruction should not have occurred,” adding that he had personally spoken to the traditional owners of the land.
“It’s incredibly important this doesn’t happen again,” said Wyatt, an indigenous Australian.
“The West Australian State Government needs to ensure that their legislation and approvals processes protect our Indigenous cultural heritage. It seems quite clear, that in this instance, the legislation has failed.”
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the country’s first leader to apologize to generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children forcefully taken from their parents by white Australians last century, said Rio Tinto’s “corporate arrogance had robbed all Australians.”
“Juukan Gorge’s shelters [are] nine-times older than Stonehenge, 23-times older than the Colosseum and 75-times older than Machu Picchu,” he posted on his official Twitter account.