Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Aboriginal Mining in Pre-European Australia

In the business section of the West Australian newspaper of December 4, 2012, David Collard - described as a leading indigenous spokesman - was quoted as saying that "Aboriginal people did not want to take mining jobs because digging up the land offended their traditional culture'.  I interpret this to mean that Mr Collard is claiming Aboriginal people never or rarely undertook mining activities prior to European settlement and that it's a new and not particularly palatable industry. I assume he's trying to insert this belief into  Australia's broader understanding of Aboriginal history so that indigenous people can more widely adopt a similar view, the end result being that Aboriginals will oppose or at least not offer support for mining.

As a geologist, I can attest to the falseness of Mr Collard's belief. Wilgie Mia near Cue was mined by Aboriginal people for thousands of years (Wikipedia says 40,000 years!), with much of its 14,000 tonnes of ochre traded throughout the western half of the Australian continent. The ochre from this mine was highly valued and it is my understanding that it formed an important part of many ceremonial and artistic practices within many Aboriginal groups.

The chert deposit now located offshore from Margaret River as a result of the sea level rise which stopped roughly at its current height some 8,000 years ago supplied tens or hundreds of tonnes of stone for cutting and hunting tools that were traded throughout the south west. The sharp edge that could be produced by skillfully breaking the stone into flakes made it a valuable and highly tradable mineral commodity.

In New South Wales, there are 183 identified Aboriginal mine sites, primarily for stone and ochre.

Clearly, Aboriginals were competent miners who undertook mining of a number of mineral commodities throughout Australia prior to 1788.

Mr Collard is then quoted in the same newspaper article as saying that indigenous people prefer green-friendly jobs. I agree with him and suggest that most Australians would prefer such jobs. For better or for worse, however, the reality of the world is that the products of mining are essential to our modern global economy and mining must exist if we wish to enjoy the social and economic benefits that its products provide.

Mining forms an undeniably important part of Aboriginal history. If today's mining industry can provide quality employment for Aboriginal people, then Mr Collard should not stand in the way of such jobs by asking us to accept his personal and inaccurate view of Aboriginal history. He clearly has an agenda that he's pushing - maybe he wants to reserve all the eco-friendly jobs for Aboriginal people and leave the other jobs to non-indigenous Australians - but I'm uncertain as to what his agenda is and hence what end goal he is trying to achieve by denying the reality of pre-European Aboriginal mining.

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By the way, I've never been comfortable with the word 'non-indigenous'. I find it somewhat demeaning that the people to whom it refers are non-persons of some sort. So, if Australia's first people are to be considered indigenous to this country (and I'm very comfortable with this use of the term), then maybe we should call Australia's more recent settlers exdigenous. If you do a Google search on this word, you'll find I'm not the first person to use it so I hope it will receive greater acceptance and usage in the future.


1 comment:

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