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Forensics Unearth Kimberley Massacres

The painting shows Aboriginal prisoners chained between two trees. The four figures hold guns. The footsteps end at the well and goatyard, and contain fragmented bone. The white line and black stones represent the milky coloured water of Sturt Creek. The black stones along the banks are cormorants. Credit: Launa Yoomarri/Daisy Kungah under direction of Clancy and Speiler Sturt. Permission given by the artists at a meeting with the Custodians at Billiluna

The painting shows Aboriginal prisoners chained between two trees. The four figures hold guns. The footsteps end at the well and goatyard, and contain fragmented bone. The white line and black stones represent the milky coloured water of Sturt Creek. The black stones along the banks are cormorants. Credit: Launa Yoomarri/Daisy Kungah under direction of Clancy and Speiler Sturt. Permission given by the artists at a meeting with the Custodians at Billiluna

For almost a century, the people of the Kutjungka region in the south-east Kimberley of Western Australia have passed on the testimony of massacres of their ancestors at Sturt Creek. Now Flinders University, CSIRO and other researchers have found scientific evidence that the bodies of Aboriginal victims were frequently incinerated following the event.

Working with the oral testimony of the descent group, which originated from Riwarri, the sole adult survivor of the massacre, archaeological surveys defined two distinct sites containing thousands of bone fragments. X-ray diffraction analysis of 16 bone fragments confirmed that the fragments had been subjected to extreme temperatures of 600°C for more than 80 hours, 650°C for more than 20 hours, 700°C for more than 4 hours and 800°C for more than 1 hour.

“The oral testimonies were that people were shot and burnt,” says Dr Pamela Smith of Flinders University Archaeology. “The XRD analysis from CSIRO provided the key evidence, because those bone fragments had been subjected to intensely hot fires over a very long time. There had to be people there maintaining those fires and temperatures for a long period. That was the evidence of human intervention.”

Macroscopic and microscopic examinations of some of the bone samples found strong pathological and archaeological evidence that the bone fragments were human in origin, although the evidence was not conclusive.

The results of the investigation were published in Forensic Science International.