Artefacts uncovered at Yirra in the Pilbara show presence of Yinhawangka people dating back to the Ice Age

Alexander ScottPilbara News
Excavation activity at Yirra.
Camera IconExcavation activity at Yirra. Credit: Supplied/Archae-aus

An archaeological excavation on a sacred site in the Pilbara has found proof of the presence of Yinhawangka people in the region for more than 50,000 years.

The Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation commissioned the excavation project of the Yirra rockshelter at Rio Tinto’s Eastern Channar mine about 17km southeast of Paraburdoo.

The project was led by YAC in collaboration with Archae-aus heritage consultants, and researchers from the University of Western Australia and had funding from Rio Tinto.

Analysis of stone tools, charcoal and bone collected from Yirra revealed 50,000-plus years of habitation including throughout the height of the last Ice Age.

YAC chair Halloway Smirke.
Camera IconYAC chair Halloway Smirke. Credit: Supplied/FTI consulting

YAC chairperson Halloway Smirke said Yirra has great significance not only to the Yinhawangka people, but also to the Wangarada and Ngarngarada.

“We hope that Yirra will help us tell our ancestral story to Australia and our future generations,” he said.

“We would still be visiting this site if it wasn’t for the mining leases.

“All Pilbara groups should have this kind of science work done on cultural sites. Important sites like Yirra need to be protected, especially when they turn out to be amongst the oldest known places of human habitation in Australia.”

Initial dating results indicate it is one of the oldest sites found in Australia, with Yirra providing proof of Aboriginal occupation in the region for more than 50,000 years and throughout the height of the last Ice Age.

University of Western Australia Professor Peter Veth said the early age range of this site is extremely important to the traditional owners of Yirra.

“Radiocarbon dating had shown the age of the site reached 23,000 years with hearths laid down during the Last Glacial Maximum,” he said.

“By expanding the excavation and using new dating methods, such as optically stimulated luminescence dating, the age of the Yirra site has been extended to the radiocarbon ‘barrier’ — and beyond 50,000 years.”

Excavation activity at Yirra.
Camera IconExcavation activity at Yirra. Credit: Supplied/Archae-aus

Professor Veth said there will be an ongoing program of exhaustive dating and analyses of the site as a collaboration between the traditional owners and researchers.

The site was originally excavated by Archae-aus excavation project manager and director Fiona Hook with her husband Dr Bruce Veitch and traditional owners more than 20 years ago.

Ms Hook said they knew at the time the site was special as it contained intact hearths from the last Ice Age.

“There was no charcoal left to date after 23,000 years ago,” she said.

“We knew the old people were there before that as we found artefacts below the oldest date. We’ve now proven that beyond doubt.”

Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Simon Trott said the findings were a major archaeological breakthrough of international significance, expanding knowledge of Aboriginal occupation in the Pilbara.

“We acknowledge the significance of Yirra and are committed to working in partnership with the Yinhawangka people to ensure it’s preserved for future generations,” he said.

Get the latest news from in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails