“Accidental” Destruction of Aboriginal Stone Arrangement in Australia

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“Accidental” Destruction of Aboriginal Stone Arrangement in Australia

A private landowner has damaged a 1,500-year-old stone eel arrangement near Lake Bolac, Australia. The Kuyang stone monument was shaped into an eel an

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A private landowner has damaged a 1,500-year-old stone eel arrangement near Lake Bolac, Australia. The Kuyang stone monument was shaped into an eel and created before the Europeans arrived in Australia. Kuyang means eel in South West Aboriginal language. The eel stone arrangement has been on private land and owned by one family for 150 years. The site was protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act which includes considerable penalties for damage to Aboriginal cultural heritage, but Aboriginal representatives demand the government do more to protect their cultural heritage.

Part of the Kuyang stone arrangement site (Neil Murray)

Why is the Kuyang Stone Arrangement Important?

The stone arrangement was created with basalt stones placed in two lines that stretch 176 meters (577 ft). Eels were essential to Australia’s Aboriginals, and they represented the aquaculture industry that allowed for survival during those times. This site is only 100 kilometers (62 miles) from a world heritage site, the Budj Bim eel trap located in the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara people in southeastern Australia.

The volcanic planes in Australia are some of the oldest aquaculture systems in the world. There are a series of stone-lined channels and pools created to harvest eels in Budj Bim Cultural Landscape , hence the importance and significance of protecting these sites. In reference to the sites importance, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Cooperation Cultural Heritage manager John Clark is quoted by  ABC News  as saying that “different language groups and different nations would come into this space to celebrate the life cycle of eels. In many ways, it made up the cultural identity of who we were as people.”

The nearby Budj Bim Cultural Landscape makes up one of the most extensive and oldest aquaculture systems. (Tyson Lovett-Murray / Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation )

The stone arrangements were used as a gathering place, and in modern days the site hosts an eel festival. According to James Dawson, who wrote about the importance of the Eel Festival for Australian Aborigines in 1881:

“Lake Buloke is the most celebrated place in the Western District for the fine quality and abundance of its eels, and, when the Autumn rains induce these fish to leave the lake and to go down the river to the sea, the Aborigines gather there from great distances.”

The Kuyang stone arrangement is not the only cultural site with eel influence. The 6,000-year-old network of eel traps near Lake Condah, Budj Bim, received a UNESCO World Heritage status in 2017.

Drone image of a dam within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, part of a network of eel traps which have attained UNESCO World Heritage status. (Tyson Lovett-Murray / Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation)

Drone image of a dam within the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, part of a network of eel traps which have attained UNESCO World Heritage status. (Tyson Lovett-Murray / Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation )

Action Needed to be Taken to Protect Aboriginal Cultural Heritage

Many Aboriginal people feel that Australia needs more education and legislation to protect treasured sites. A similar tragedy occurred in December 2020 in Western Australia, when a 46,000-year-old rock pool of incalculable historic importance was destroyed by mining. According to The Guardian Paul Paton, the chief executive of the Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Councils, explained that “the best way to moderate people’s behavior is to educate them on what’s out there, the importance of those sites to us as traditional owners.”

A perceived problem is that many of these treasured sites are located on private land, as this makes them vulnerable to destruction, as in the current Kuyang stone arrangement case. “The idea that private land holders might not be aware that such important sites exist, despite being registered with the state government, is horrifying,” explained Paton in  ABC News .

Understanding Current Legislation of Aboriginal Cultural  

There have been legislative actions taken to protect any Aboriginal cultural and heritage sites. The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act of 2006 was enacted to protect sites from any damage or harm. Under this legislation, individuals can be changed from $100,000 to $300,000 for harming a registered site.

One significant obstacle is that landowners can claim to be unaware that a registered site is on their land. The landowner of the site where the Kuyang stone arrangement is located has claimed he was unaware of the site’s importance, even though his family has owned this land for 150 years and it was registered on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register in 1975.

“Heritage is being destroyed because people plead the ignorant card, they don’t know about it,” decries Jamie Lowe, the CEO of National Native Titles Council, on ABC News . Aboriginals argue that traditional owners should manage and protect these sites. Lowe explains that “traditional owners should be responsible for their own precious cultural heritage – not private landowners. This will ensure sites like the Kooyang Stone Arrangement are managed with the dignity and respect they deserve.” Lowe calls for government action, further education and physical protection of sites, claiming that fences would protect these treasured sites from “accidental” disruption. 

Top image: Image taken by Lake Bolac resident which appears to show that the Aboriginal stone arrangement has been damaged.  Source: Neil Murray

By Sarah Piraino

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