Murrawijinie Cave on the Nullarbor Plain (image via Wikimedia Commons)

In Southern Australia, vandals forced their way into the sacred Koonalda Cave and permanently destroyed part of the 30,000-year-old Nullarbor Plain drawings, some of the country’s oldest examples of Indigenous rock art.

According to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the vandals appear to have dug underneath a steel gate to enter the site, where they then etched the phrase “don’t look now, but this is a death cave” into the limestone walls. Archaeologist Keryn Walshe told the Guardian that the soft surface of the cave means it is impossible to remove the writing without damaging the drawings.

The damaged works are of spiritual significance to the Mirning People. Senior Mirning Elder Uncle Bunna Lawrie explained to Hyperallergic that the drawings, which comprise hatched fluting created by fingers digging into the wall, represent the lines on a whale and that the cave is a place elders visit to connect with their ancestors. In Mirning tradition, only the male elders are allowed entry to the sacred site. Lawrie added that the group has made requests to the Australian government to increase security on the site, which trespassers have gained access to for years, carving smaller markings into the walls. Now, the Australian government is facing criticism for its lack of action.

“Me and my Mirning Elders are very sad, disturbed and hurt by what has happened,” said Lawrie. “Koonalda is our most important, sacred place.”

“People were going there without us being consulted,” he continued. “That is abuse and so disrespectful.” Lawrie also pointed out that the vandalism may have been premeditated: The remote site is hours away from a large population center and the cave itself is difficult to navigate and dark, he said, comparing it to a city subway system.

Uncle Bunna Lawrie’s painting evoking the “Whale Dreaming” art visible in the cave. The rock carving’s fluting is depicted on the top. Uncle Bunna Lawrie, “Whale Dreaming Creation” (2019)  (courtesy Yinyila Nation of Mirning with permission of Mirning Elders)

The Koonalda Cave has been on Australia’s National Heritage List since 2014, in part for its role in shifting the understanding of Indigenous history in Australia. Prior to 1956 research into the cave, the earliest known trace of Indigenous people in the nation was dated to approximately 8,700 years ago. At the time, the cave drawings were estimated to be around 22,000 years old, but it is now known that they date as far back as 30,000 years ago.

Under Australian heritage law, the Mirning people were barred from protecting the Koonalda Cave and had to ask for a key to gain entrance. These laws are currently under review.

“It is not coming back,” Lawrie said of the lost drawings. “It is one of the oldest cave art in the world and it is now damaged. It is so wrong.”

Uncle Bunna Lawrie and Peter Owen survey damage at the cave. (photo by Bill Doyle; used with permission from the Elders of the Yinyila Nation of Mirning)

Authorities have yet to find the vandals, but the suspects could face a A$10,000 ($6,700) fine and up to six months in prison.

While the Koonalda Cave has been irreparably impacted by individual acts of vandalism, rock art in Western Australia is being threatened by a natural gas project. Experts have warned that pollution from the drilling could erode the site’s ancient petroglyphs, and in 2020, a mining company blew up a cave system containing ancient Indigenous archaeological sites in a quest for iron ore.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.