Rio Tinto has apologized to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people after setting off explosives last week that destroyed two ancient rock shelters in Western Australia. The sacred Aboriginal site, in the Juukan Gorge in the north of the territory, dates back 46,000 years, SBS News reports. "We are sorry for the distress we have caused," the mining giant's chief executive said in a statement. The company was in the process of expanding an iron ore mine. "As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area," the CEO said. The Australian government has announced it will begin a review of heritage protection laws, per the Sydney Morning Herald. A UNESCO official has compared the destruction to that of sites in Afghanistan and Syria by the Taliban and ISIS.
The company indicated that, in years of negotiations, Aboriginal representatives hadn't relayed the importance of preserving the site, a suggestion that was rejected. "The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto," a spokesman said, "as recently as March." He said Rio Tinto didn't disclose its intention to blast and had said last fall that it had no plans to expand the mine. Archaeological digs at the site have uncovered grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4,000-year-old braided hair. It's Australia's only inland site where evidence has been found of continuous human residency through the last Ice Age. The discoveries were made after the mining project received approval in 2013. Rio Tinto said it will work to learn from its mistake and "strengthen our partnership." (Read more Australia stories.)