A 22,000-year-old artwork in a sacred Aboriginal cave in South Australia has been vandalised and destroyed in a “massive, tragic loss”.
Unknown vandals broke into the fenced-off Koonalda Cave in the Nullarbor Plain and carved graffiti over the heritage-listed rock art. The graffiti reads: “don’t look now, but this is a death cave”.
SA authorities said the culprits dug under a steel gate to enter the site and completely destroyed one area of it.
Archeologist Dr Keryn Walshe said Koonalda Cave was listed as a national heritage site because the art etched into the rock was so rare and important. It has now been destroyed beyond repair.
“The vandals caused a huge amount of damage. The art is not recoverable,” Walshe told Guardian Australia.
“The surface of the cave is very soft. It is not possible to remove the graffiti without destroying the art underneath. It’s a massive, tragic loss to have it defaced to this degree.”
The cave is layered with silica, a very soft rock which makes the surrounding beach sand white. Evidence suggests was likely mined by the Mirning people who scraped it away with their hands. Koonalda Cave was the first site in Australia where Aboriginal art was identified in an area that did not receive natural light.
Finger marks inside Koonalda Cave Australia circa 20,000 BC. Ancient indigenous Australians looking for flint within the cave pressed their fingers into the soft limestone wall. pic.twitter.com/FxjEYeDwbT
— Randy The Atheist (@RTheatheist) October 28, 2022
The Traditional Owners of the site are the Mirning people who have been visiting Koonalda Cave for more than 30,000 years.
Senior Mirning Elder and Custodian of Koonalda Uncle Bunna Lawrie told PEDESTRIAN.TV it is “our most important, sacred place.”
“Me and my Mirning Elders are very sad, disturbed and hurt by what has happened,” he said.
“I am a custodian of Koonalda and my ancestors have protected this place for tens of thousands of years. [We’ve] kept it beautiful and sacred.”
Uncle Bunna said Koonalda is on the whale songline — a sacred place that connects the whale journey in Creation times to the Mirning people.
“People were going there without us being consulted. That is abuse and so disrespectful,” he said.
“It is not coming back.
“It is one of the oldest cave arts in the world and it is now damaged. It is so wrong. We will now seek help to investigate, as we see this as a criminal offence and abuse to our Mirning culture.”
The Mirning Cultural Group told PEDESTRIAN.TV they were grateful for the support from the Australian people for protecting Mirning Country while all Elders are grieving.
Vandals destroyed sacred artwork in South Australia thought to be 30,000 yrs old.
The Nullarbor Plain art, designs carved into chalk limestone walls of the Koonalda Cave, has special significance for the region’s Aboriginal Mirning people. pic.twitter.com/B52LqTIh1w
— Rita Rosenfeld (@rheytah) December 21, 2022
This is far from the first time the site had been vandalised, though it is the worst damage to date.
Walshe said the fence, which was installed in the 1980s, wasn’t enough to keep people out because there has been many instances of people breaking in and writing their names or dates in the cave.
A spokesperson for the SA Government said the destruction was “shocking and heartbreaking” and that the culprits, should they be caught, would be punished severely.
They also said the government was considering further protection measures on-site.
“Over recent months the South Australian government has been consulting Traditional Owners and other stakeholders on developing a comprehensive plan to better protect this important site,” the spokesperson said.
“The existing fencing and general difficulty in accessing the caves deters the vast majority of visitors from trespassing. Live monitoring of the site via closed-circuit cameras is being considered to better protect the cave.”
But after multiple instances of vandalism at Koonalda Cave, it’s not good enough for them to be considering it. They need to do something right now.