Where can you look to see the oldest human face in the whole world? If you managed to glimpse their face, do you think this person would be smiling?
At the site of the oldest surviving art and the oldest continuously surviving storytelling narratives on the planet, among millions of petroglyphs at a single site, some of the rock art over 50,000 years old, has the world’s oldest human face been crushed for a mining company’s roadfill at the Southern Hemisphere’s largest industrial gas refinery complex? Those rocks: What human lives and violences have they witnessed over 50,000 years? What will the rocks think about us?
Up until recently, when you tried to search the library or scour the internet to discover “the world’s oldest artistic depiction of a human face,” you might have been told that the “oldest human face” was displayed in 25,000-year-old rock art in caves near Angouleme. Or maybe the human face carved into a figurine of mammoth ivory at Dolni Vestonice about 25,000 years ago. There is a feline entity, a human body with a cat’s head, a carved figurine from Germany, about 39,500 years old. There might be undiscovered depictions of human figures in Zulu territory, or on Indonesian islands. Chauvet cave art (in modern “France”) also used to be credited as “the oldest cave rock art in the world depicting human or animal figures,” dated to about 32,500 years old. Other sites in Europe had older art depicting abstract figures. But there is even older art of the human figure, outside of Europe, of course.
A 2019 report identified rock art in a limestone cave at Leang Bulu Sipong, Sulawesi. It’s a hunting scene. The researchers claimed that this art is “currently the oldest [known] pictorial record of storytelling and the earliest [known] figurative artwork in the world.” Using uranium-series analysis, they claimed to have dated the Sulawesi human- and animal-figure art to at least 43,900 years old.
Ironically, uranium – the extraction of and profiting from uranium – plays a role in another rock art site with some of the “oldest” depictions of the human being.
Murujuga. In Ngayarda language of the Jaburara, “hip bone sticking out.” Site of an estimated 2 million engravings, 2 million Aboriginal petroglyphs, some estimated to be 50,000 years old. A local archaeologist specializing in Western Australia Aboriginal rock art, speaking in 2013:
“This is the longest, deepest, [most] continuous narrative of human production, belief systems, and culture in the world. […] It is unique and there are 2 million.”
A peninsula, now connected to the mainland; it used to be an island, “Dampier Island.” In English, Murujuga is referred to as “the “Burrup Peninsula.” It’s in the Pilbara region along the Indian Ocean coast of “Western Australia.” The peninsula sits alongside the region’s notable city, Karratha. The Murujuga peninsula is only about 115 square kilometers in size. It’s relatively not that far away from Sulawesi.
At Murujuga: Despite its relatively small size, the peninsula is home to more than 2 million Aboriginal petrogylphs. The rock art is about 38,000 years older than Gobekli Tepe.
What else is at Murujuga?
Karratha Gas Plant; Yara
Pilbara fertilizer plant; the largest mercury treatment plant in Australia; Yara Pilbara and Orica ammonium nitrates
and explosives plants; a Rio Tinto iron ore terminal; a Rio Tinto salt production site; what used to be the largest offshore gas production platform in the world; claims to “the largest gas refinery in the Southern Hemisphere”; the Pluto LNG plant processing gas from underwater offshore Xena gas fields; and the site of the Flying Foam Massacre
(February-May 1868). The Ichthys liquefied natural gas pipeline, located offshore a little farther north towards the Timor Sea, is the longest subsea pipeline in the Southern Hemisphere.
All at Murujuga, along with “the oldest human face.”
Between the end of 2016 and the end of 2018, the value of Western Australia petroleum and mineral extraction jumped from $10 billion to $90 billion.
One-third of Australia’s oil and gas production comes from the North West Shelf operations centered at Karratha immediately adjacent to the Murujuga rock art. Mining accounts for at least 86% of Western Australia’s income from exports.
Massive industrial-scale extraction of coal, oil, iron ore, and mineral reserves has been omnipresent in rural Western Australia for a century, and more recently offshore natural gas reserves have been targeted. At Murujuga, there have been passionate arguments over the amount of individual petroglyphs, and arguments over the age of the art, arguments with drastic political implications for the state of Western Australia and for Australia’s mining industries. Academics say that about 25% of Murujuga’s rock art has been destroyed by industrial resource extraction development. Western Australia authorities claim only between 5 and 10% were erased.
Is there a human face, here, 50,000 years old? Older? Depending on the authority you ask, the Aboriginal
petroglyphs at Murujuga included the world’s oldest known image of a
At least according to a 2013 interview with a panel including an elder of the Wong-Goo-Tt-Oo people, an art historian, and an archaeologist, the oldest known human face at Murujuga might have been destroyed during mining and refinery company development in the early 2000s.
They reference how a contractor, working for one the biggest petroleum exploration companies on the peninsula, claimed to personally witness the company crush at least 10,000 petroglyphs for roadfill. During this interview, the art historian said this: “These great big metal pipes. And you know the fluming that comes out of these pipes? It goes 24-hours-a-day, it’s as high as a six-story building. […] It’s an error, because they haven’t built the pipe properly, and this is all the liquid natural gas escaping. And the emissions in one day there are the total emissions of an entire year in New Zealand. And because it’s so remote, nobody sees this. And the roar of these huge flames […] it’s deafening. […] The beautiful white eucalyptus in the valleys […] which lie between the boulders, had actually started dying. And the rock pools, which had been pristine-clear when I was there 5 years ago, are now filled with a green scum. […] And the mining companies are saying ‘we’re monitoring the erosion’ […] but it is an internecine web of lies.”
In 1868, at Murujuga and Karratha, during the Flying Foam Massacre, settlers received permission from local government authority figures to form raiding parties, mobs. In February, Aboriginal children were among the 15 murdered at one camp. Over the next 3 months, at least another 150 Aboriginal people were murdered.
Today, in Western Australia, rates of Aboriginal incarceration have doubled
between 1990 and 2010. As of 2018, 1 in 12 Aboriginal adult men are in
prison, among the highest rates of racialized incarceration on the planet.
Again, the Western Australia archaeologist: “The granophyre rocks, almost as hard as diamonds, this is a canvas that never forgets the memory of people’s actions, in deep time right through to the recent time. So we have peoples’ visions of what they think, their worldviews, […] aspects of […] intimacy, sustenance […]. And this is an incredibly hard rock, so whether an engraving or stone arrangement was made 30, 20, 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age when the ranges were 150 kilometers inland, a refugia, or now the isthmus, the rocky jagged slopes that jut into the Indian Ocean … it remembers. That canvas, those particular rocks, that particular volcanic, has a permanent memory.”
What will now be inscribed in that memory?
What will the rocks remember?
The death of the white eucalyptus? The towering flames, burning dozens of meters in the sky? The massive oil platforms? The nitrates and explosives and fertilizers? The Southern Hemisphere’s longest underwater pipeline? The 1868 massacre? The racialized incarceration rates? The violence done to the people who cared for the rocks continuously for over 50,000 years? The crushing of an ancient human face for roadfill?
Where now do we look to see the oldest human face?