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19 November 2010
Road driven through Tasmania's Aboriginal history

Archaeologists in Tasmania (Australia) have revealed an exceptional site on the banks of the Jordan River outside Hobart. Eight test pits were dug yielding nearly 1500 artefacts, leading the team to conclude that millions of artefacts are buried in this rich site. These artefacts provide the earliest evidence of human habitation in the southern hemisphere. Archaeologist Dr Rob Paton labelled the site as being 'of extremely high significance' since "it has the potential to give us a glimpse into an unknown part of world history and the spread of Homo Sapiens across the earth." Unfortunately, the state government have plans to drive a A$177 million four-lane highway and bridge through the area to provide what they say is essential infrastructure.
     The dig was begun after Aboriginal groups became concerned about the plans. The area was used as a meeting place from 40,000 years ago, and by three major tribal groups until as recently as 1828, 25 years after European colonization. That process of colonization involved the killing and deportation of Aborigines, and left little trace of Aboriginal culture on the island. Now, despite the importance of the site, which Paton notes is full of the rarely found tools of daily life 40,000 years ago, the government is resisting plans to divert the road, claiming that alternative routes are seen as prohibitively expensive, and that no damage will be caused by the sinking of concrete pylons or the rock in-filling.
     The legal director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Michael Mansell calls the government's plans 'cultural vandalism.' He says "that's a place that really strikes at our heart, and is about our identity, our past and our future. When you stand down by that levee, you can feel the presence of our ancestors, of the old people and the children." In contrast, he argues that the government, far from being excited about the discoveries "saw them as a handicap to their highway. They really have no appreciation of anything that's different from their white culture. To them, white heritage is sacrosanct, but Aboriginal heritage, they're happy to build straight on top of it. You wouldn't see them pouring rubble or building a bridge over the top of Port Arthur."
     One Australian MP, Andrew Wilkie, has called for the site to be given National Heritage status, and both conservation and Aboriginal groups are asking for federal intervention. In the meantime, Aboriginal people, awaiting a Supreme Court ruling about the whether the Tasmanian Heritage Council acted correctly in deciding not to protect the site, may blockade the bulldozers themselves.

Edited from The Independent (14 November 2010)

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