Tasmanian Devil tooth among ‘mind-blowing’ finds in destroyed Juukan Gorge cave: The Age

By Peter Milne

The first physical evidence that Tasmanian Devils once lived in the Pilbara is among the discoveries made by archaeologists investigating what is left of a rock shelter blasted by Rio Tinto in 2020.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama land committee chair Burchell Hayes said the archaeological dig was part of a deal between his community and the Anglo-Australian miner to rebuild their relationship after the Juukan Gorge incident.

The Juukan Gorge rock shelters before they were legally destroyed by Rio Tinto blasting in 2020. CREDIT: PKKP AND PKKP ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

The ancient finds from two years of work include braided human hair, a shell bead, quartz artefacts held together with resin, stone artefacts and a tooth of a Tasmanian Devil.

The tooth is the first physical evidence that Tasmanian Devils once lived in the Pilbara. The marsupial carnivores lived in the south-west of WA up to about 3000 years ago.

Associate Professor Michael Slack who directed the excavation said the finds were “mind-blowing.”

“Some of the individual items we have excavated are enough to make a site highly significant in themselves,” he said.

Slack said the shell was proof the area’s early inhabitants traded with or visited people on the coast hundreds of kilometres away.

“The fact we have a collection of these items all from one small part of the planned excavation demonstrates what the PKK people have been saying all along – that this is a very special and important place,” he said.

The work included removal of blasted overburden and the boulders that once formed the roof and walls of the rock shelter. While the rock shelter had been destroyed the archaeological deposit was largely intact.

When the rock shelters were excavated between 2008 and 2014 archaeologists found 5000-year old braided hair, a kangaroo bone sharpened to a point and DNA that was linked to Aboriginal people living in the Pilbara.


Terry Hayes, a PKK traditional owner who worked on the excavation, said he was glad his people had reclaimed the site.

“It’s been a hard road since 2020, but now that we’ve made this progress, it feels like we’ve moved to the next step,” he said.

The excavation since the blast has so far covered about a quarter of the cave floor in an area untouched by archaeologists. A further 12 months of excavation is planned followed by analysis of the results.