Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation
Kakadu research agreement
A remote site in northern Australia grabbed global attention in July 2017
when a team of archaeologists and dating specialists published proof in
Nature magazine that Aboriginal people have been on the Australian continent for
at least 65,000 years.
The results, from a new and comprehensive excavation dating program at the
Madjedbebe rock shelter in the Northern Territory, reveal humans arrived in
Australia much earlier than many archaeologists originally thought. They
found that humans lived at the Madjedbebe site when now-extinct species of
giant animals were still roaming the land.
The Nature article stated: ‘This evidence sets a new minimum age
for the arrival of humans in Australia, the dispersal of modern humans out
of Africa, and the subsequent interactions of modern humans with
Neanderthals and Denisovans’.
The Madjedbebe rock shelter site is located on the traditional lands of the
Mirarr people surrounded by Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory,
300 kilometres east of Darwin. The site is on land vested in the Jabiluka
Aboriginal Land Trust pursuant to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. It is also
within the boundaries of mineral leases granted under the act.
Access to the site is highly restricted – entering any Aboriginal land
requires a permit – and this land also requires entry permission from
Permission to enter Aboriginal land is obtained from the Northern Land
Council as the representative organisation of traditional owners under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. There is
also a requirement to obtain a permit from the Aboriginal Areas Protection
Authority, pursuant to the Northern Territory Sacred Sites Act.
The mining lease is currently held by a majority-owned Rio Tinto subsidiary Energy Resources of Australia
(ERA). ERA conducts its operations in close cooperation with the Mirarr
traditional owners. Access to the Madjedbebe rock shelter site was provided
by ERA only at the request of the Mirarr and subject at all times to their
consent and agreement.
The Mirarr people can exercise direct control over their affairs via their
representative corporation, Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) which
has a well-resourced office and staff located nearby in Kakadu National
Negotiating the GAC-UQ research agreement
When University of Queensland (UQ) scientists and archaeologists first
arrived at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in 2012, they did not have a clearly
articulated agreement for the scope of their work, or protocols and
permissions relating to artefacts and results.
UQ forwarded a copy to GAC of what it considered to be a standard agreement
between Indigenous communities and research groups. However, the Mirarr
needed a more expansive and comprehensive written agreement – one
accurately reflecting the rights and interests they asserted over the
region in which the research was occurring.
So, in addition to the formal requirements for accessing the site and
gaining permission to conduct the work, UQ and GAC entered into an
additional agreement covering the application and publication of the
resulting research findings.
That agreement gives the Mirarr people control (in the field of
archaeological research) over the daily conduct of the excavation and the
analysis and curation of its results. The Mirarr people had the right to
halt the excavation under certain circumstances, to retain control over
artefacts and have the final editorial say over the publication of
findings. From the location and size of the excavation to the treatment and
eventual repatriation of artefacts, the agreement sets out strict
guidelines for researchers’ behaviour.
UQ researchers submit all academic publications related to the excavation
to GAC for consideration and comment. Where publications extrapolate their
findings beyond empirical data only – for example, speculation about the
social or cultural conditions at the time associated with an artefact – GAC
has the right to query conclusions and request further supporting evidence.
If supporting evidence is not presented – or the Mirarr people do not agree
with the conclusion – publications must carry a disclaimer from the Mirarr
clearly stating the traditional owners do not support certain aspects of
the published conclusions.
Associate Professor Chris Clarkson from UQ School of Social Science, who
led the research team, says: ‘Aboriginal involvement, Aboriginal
permission, Aboriginal rights over the excavation itself are very important
in this kind of endeavour.
‘The Mirarr were interested in supporting new research into the age of the
site and to know more about the early evidence of technologies thought to
be present there.
‘The site contains the oldest ground-edge stone axe technology in the
world, the oldest known seed-grinding tools in Australia and evidence of
finely made stone points, which may have served as spear tips.’
Archaeological material generated in this study will be kept in the
archaeology laboratories of UQ until 2018 and will then be deposited in a
Gundjeihmi keeping place. The material will be publicly accessible upon
request with permission from GAC.
‘This study confirms the sophistication of the Australian Aboriginal
toolkit and underscores the universal importance of the Jabiluka area,’
says Justin O’Brien, Chief Executive, GAC.
'Aboriginal involvement, Aboriginal permission, Aboriginal rights over the excavation itself are very important in this kind of endeavour.'
Associate Professor Chris Clarkson, School of Social Science, University of Queensland
Image 1: Madjedbebe site custodian May Nango and Excavation leader Chris Clarkson in the pit. Picture by Dominic O’Brien
Copyright Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation 2015.
Excavation leader Chris Clarkson stands in front of the 2015 excavation area with local Djurrubu Aboriginal Rangers Vernon Hardy, Mitchum Nango, Jacob Baird, and Claude Hardy
Picture by Dominic O'Brien. Copyright Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation 2015.