From crumbling rock art to exposed ancestral remains, climate change is ravaging our precious indigenous heritage


Climate change is rapidly intensifying. Amid the chaos and devastation it is causing, many valuable Indigenous heritage sites in Australia and around the world are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

Rising sea levels, flooding, worsening bushfires and other human-caused climate events put many archaeological and heritage sites at risk. Already, culturally significant Indigenous sites have been lost or are under serious threat.

For example, in northern Australia, rock art tens of thousands of years has been destroyed by cyclones, bushfires and other extreme weather events.

And as we describe below, the ancestral remnants of Torres Strait were nearly washed away last year by high tides and storm surges.

These examples of loss are only the beginning, unless we act. By combining the Aboriginal Traditional knowledge with Western scientific approaches, communities can prioritize the heritage to be saved.

Australia’s ancient landscapes are a treasure of Indigenous heritage. Pictured: Mithaka Country in remote Queensland.
Shawnee Gorringe/courtesy Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation

Indigenous heritage on the brink

Indigenous Australians are one of the oldest cultures on Earth. They have preserved their cultural and sacred sites for millennia.

In July, Traditional Owners across Australia attended a workshop on Disaster Risk Management at Flinders University. The participants, who work on the country as cultural heritage managers and rangers, came from as far away as the Torres Strait Islands and Tasmania.

Here, three of these traditional owners describe the cultural heritage losses they have witnessed, or fear will occur in the near future.

– Enid Tom, Kaurareg Elder and Administrator of Kaurareg Native Title Aboriginal Corporation:

Coastal erosion and seawater flooding have long threatened the Torres Strait. But now efforts to fix the problem have taken on a new urgency.

In February last year, royal tides and a storm surge eroded parts of a beach on Muralug (or Prince of Wales) Island. Native guardians and archaeologists rushed to a website where a female ancestor was buried. They excavated the skeletal remains and reburied them in a safe place.

This was the first time such a site had been excavated on the island. Kaurareg elders now fear that coastal erosion will uncover and potentially destroy other burial sites.

Read more: Sacred Aboriginal sites are under threat again in the Pilbara. But tourism can help protect Australia’s rich cultural heritage

Excavations of an ancestral burial eroded by royal tides in the Torres Strait.
Michael Westaway, UQ/ courtesy of Kaurareg Native Title Aboriginal Corporation

– Marcus Lacey, Senior Indigenous Ranger Gumurr Marthakal:

The Marthakal Indigenous Protected Area covers remote islands and coastal mainland areas in the northeastern Arnhem Land of the Northern Territory. It has an average elevation of just one meter above sea level and is highly vulnerable to climate change related hazards such as severe tropical cyclones and sea level rise.

The area is the last remnant of the old land bridge join Australia with Southeast Asia. As such, it can provide valuable information on the first colonization of Australia by First Nations peoples.

It is also an important place to understand contact history between Australian Aborigines and Indonesian Maccassans, dating some 400 years.

Additionally, the area provides insight into Australia’s colonial history, such as indigenous rock art depicting the ships of British navigator Matthew Flinders. Rising sea levels and high tides mean this precious piece of Australian history is being eroded.

Read more: Changing Seasons: Using Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science to Help Cope with the Impacts of Climate Change

rocky coastal area from above
The coastal zone has an average elevation of just one meter above sea level.
Jarrad Kowlessar, Flinders University/Courtesy of Gumurr Marthakal Indigenous Rangers
flat piece of rock partially buried in sand
Rock slabs containing ancient Aboriginal art fell into the sand.
Jarrad Kowlessar, Flinders University/Courtesy of Gumurr Marthakal Indigenous Rangers

– Shawnee Gorringe, Operations Administrator at Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation:

rubble on dry land
Remains of a traditional indigenous home currently threatened with destruction.
Shawnee Gorringe/courtesy Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation

In the land of Mithaka in remote Queensland are important Aboriginal heritage sites such as stone circleshomes and examples of traditional First Nations water management infrastructure.

But repeated drought threatens to destroy these sites – a threat compounded by erosion from overgrazing.

To help address these issues, we desperately need Indigenous leadership and participation in decision-making at the local, state, and federal levels. This is the only way to ensure a sustainable future for environmental and heritage protection.

Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Joshua Gorringe was invited to the UN COP27 climate conference in Egypt in November. It is a step in the right direction.

And now ?

The loss of Indigenous heritage due to climate change requires Immediate action. This should involve rigorous assessment of threatened sites, prioritizing sites most at risk and taking action to mitigate damage.

This work should be undertaken not only by scientists, engineers and heritage workers, but first and foremost by Indigenous communities themselves, using traditional knowledge.

Last year’s COP26 global climate conference included a climate heritage agenda. This has enabled the world Indigenous voices be heard. But unfortunately, Indigenous heritage is often left out of discussions about climate change.

Addressing this requires abandoning the usual “top-down” Western neo-colonial approach, which many Indigenous communities view as exclusive and ineffective. Instead, a “bottom-up” approach should be taken through inclusive and long-term initiatives such as take care of the country.

This approach should be based on indigenous knowledge – often transmitted orally – how to manage risk. This should be combined with Western climate science, as well as expertise from governments and other organizations.

Incorporating Indigenous knowledge into cultural heritage policies and procedures will not only improve heritage protection. This would empower indigenous communities in the face of the growing climate emergency.

Read more: Caring for the Country Means Tackling the Climate Crisis with Indigenous Leaders: 3 Things the New Government Must Do

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