Australian uranium discovery threatens ancient indigenous cave art

A significant deposit has been found in a remote Australian mountain range near some of the oldest rock art on the planet

A red and white kangaroo painted with internal details in x-ray fashion, Malarrak site, Wellington Range, Australia. This painting is beautifully preserved, but is threatened by the discovery of a significant uranium deposit nearby. Photograph: Paul Tacon/The Global Mail

One of the world’s biggest uranium producers has found a significant deposit in a remote tropical Australian mountain range near sandstone galleries holding some of the oldest and most spectacular rock art on the planet.

After years of drilling, Canadian-based mining company Cameco has reported the find in the Wellington Range, where the thousands of Aboriginal artworks adorning cliffs and caves include a painting of the extinct dog-like creature, the thylacine, made in a style that is at least 15,000 years old.

“The importance of this art site is that it’s like a library,” Ronald Lamilami, a traditional Aboriginal landowner in western Arnhem Land and a custodian for the art, told The Global Mail, which on Friday published a detailed feature and map of the rock-art sites at risk nationwide. Lamilami said he fears if mining goes ahead, the works of his ancestors will be damaged.

The archaeologist Prof Paul Taçon, who has worked with Lamilami to document and date the artwork, said that dust and visitors from mining exploration could potentially damage works at the Northern Territory’s Djulirri, Malarrak and Bald Rock galleries.

Archaeologist and rock-art specialist Wayne Brennan examines a fire-damaged and graffiti-covered rock art site in the Blue Mountains, Australia. Photograph: Paul Tacon/The Global Mail

Uranium runs right through the Wellington Range area, and Cameco has explored close to Djulirri, although the big deposit found recently is nearer to Australia’s northern coast, Taçon said.

Where once there was trenchant opposition to expanding uranium mining in Australia – which has the largest known reserves in the world – the present Labor government has softened its stance, as the resources boom feeding China’s voracious appetite for energy powers the Australian economy.

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