Weipa, Australia

Respect and protection of cultural heritage is critical to Rio Tinto’s social licence to operate. Cultural heritage management is often seen as compliance rather than a broader process of social engagement. At the Weipa bauxite mine in Australia, Rio Tinto is collaborating through an Australian Research Council Industry Partnership grant with a number of universities and Aboriginal Traditional Owners from the Wathayn area. The project aims to develop a new beyond compliance approach to cultural heritage management that will lead to a better understanding of how people have adapted to changing environments over the last several thousand years. This will assist Rio Tinto and Traditional Owners to make more informed decisions about how cultural heritage is managed.

Rising sea levels during the last 10,000 years gradually inundated much of the land around Weipa creating the rich marine and estuarine environment seen today. This provided Aboriginal people with abundant shell fish to eat as evidenced by over 500 shell mounds representing one of the world’s largest intact concentrations of estuarine shell mounds. The shell mounds are regarded as very significant archaeological and cultural sites, but despite a long history of archaeological study their age, use and relationship to the surrounding environment is poorly understood.

This project is using the archaeological record of shell mounds to explore the relationship between variable patterns of human land use and environmental change. Three dimensional mapping and the excavation of over twenty shell mounds have been undertaken to obtain shell samples for analysis and radiocarbon dating. Samples of soil underneath the shell mounds are also collected for dating so that the age of the landform upon which the shell mounds have been built can also be understood. Detailed environmental mapping allows us to accurately locate the shell mounds on the different landforms of the area. From this information we have been able to develop a landscape wide history of the evolution of the estuarine environment and human occupation over the last several thousand years. We have learnt that shell mounds located in different parts of the estuary vary considerably in age, size, shape and composition. The project has already made a significant scientific contribution by extending the known age of shell mounds by a further thousand years. 

Critical to the success of the project is the shared objective with Traditional Owners to improve our understanding and management of the cultural heritage through collaboration and innovation. Community involvement in all aspects of the project is a key objective and Traditional Owners have participated in field investigations, post-excavation analysis and recording of oral histories. Further fieldwork is planned for 2012/13.