Engagement

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 mining lessees.

Madjedbebe site custodian May Nango and Excavation leader Chris Clarkson in the pit

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 Park. <

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.’

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

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.