Vandals Destroy 30,000-Year-Old Indigenous Cave Drawings in Australia

The perpetrators broke in to the cave and defaced some of the earliest known examples of First Peoples Rock Art

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Vandals broke in to Koonalda Cave in South Australia and wrote a prank message over 30,000 year old art Photo by the Mirning cultural group

In Southern Australia, vandals have broken into Koonalda Cave and destroyed 30,000 year-old sacred Indigenous rock art. The vandals forced their way past barbed wire and dug under a steel gate to get into the Koonalda Caves, where they etched graffiti into the limestone wall over the ancient Nullarbor Plain drawings. The cave is considered sacred by its owners, the Aboriginal Mirning people.

“This is quite frankly shocking,” South Australia attorney general and Aboriginal affairs minister Kyam Maher told Australia’s ABC Radio. “These caves are some of the earliest evidence of Aboriginal occupation of that part of the country.”

Authorities have yet to find the vandals, but the suspects could face a $10,000 fine or up to six months in prison for writing “Don’t look now, but this is a death cave,” over the ancient geometric patterns carved into the rock.

“The vandals caused a huge amount of damage. The art is not recoverable,” Keryn Walshe, an archaeologist of ancient Aboriginal sites, told the Guardian’s Mostafa Rachwani. “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.”

Koonalda Cave, which has been on Australia’s National Heritage list since 2014, plays an important role in the country’s, and human, history. It had long been believed that humans first arrived on the continent some 8,700 years ago, but archaeologists upended that misconception when they found that the cave's drawings date back at least 30,000 years. The findings “transformed the scientific community and publics’ understanding of Australian and World prehistory,” according to the Australian National Hertiage Places registry.

The Mirning peoples had been in talks with the Australian government over needed changes to the site’s maintenance, asking for increased security and better access for the tribe to the caves. Currently, the tribe needs to request a key from the local environmental department to access the site, making it difficult for tribe members to visit and for the Mirning to protect the site. Trespassers have been entering the caves for years and carving their names into the soft limestone rock with their fingers.

“The failure to build an effective gate, or to make use of modern security services, such as wildlife monitoring cameras that operate 24/7, has in many ways allowed this vandalism to occur,” Clare Buswell, chair of the Australian Speleological Federation’s Conservation Commission, wrote to Aboriginal lands parliamentary standing committee in July, according to the Guardian.

Rock art, like the drawings destroyed in Koonalda Cave, is the oldest known form of early human art. In many Indigenous cultures, the drawings are a part of their cultural heritage and oral histories. Visiting the Nullarbor Plain art was part of a Mirning Elders ritual in communing with ancestors. 

“Me and my Mirning Elders are very sad, disturbed and hurt by what has happened,” Mirning Elder Uncle Bunna Lawrie tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Veile. “Koonalda is our most important, sacred place.”

He tells Hyperallergic that it’s likely the destruction was “premeditated”: the drawings are deep within the tunnels of the dark caves, and Koonalda is miles away from civilization.

“It is not coming back,” says Lawrie of the ruined drawings. “It is one of the oldest cave art in the world and it is now damaged. It is so wrong.”