2_Quinkan-Landscape_resized1By Jacqueline Matthews. With thanks to Alice Buhrich and Noelene Cole for their dedicated support of this article and careful guidance through this complex issue, and for the permission to use their images.

In the December 2012 volume of Australian Archaeology Noelene Cole and Alice Buhrich provide a much needed review of cultural heritage management of the Quinkan region, southeast Cape York Peninsula, Queensland (Qld). The authors, who have both worked in this region for decades, highlight how changing legislation has affected the management of tourism and development in this region. With recent media interest in the Quinkan region, particularly regarding exploration leases sought by Jacaranda Minerals and other mining companies, it is timely to review and highlight the contribution of this article.

Quinkan rock art from Giant Horse rockshelter (photograph by Noelene Cole).

Quinkan rock art from Giant Horse rockshelter (photograph by Noelene Cole).

The Quinkan region is best known for its unique corpus of Aboriginal rock art and is regarded as one of the most important archaeological areas in Australia. In a remote and difficult to access area of the Cape York Peninsula, the Quinkan region has largely been immune from extensive development and visitation that has affected cultural heritage across much of Australia. The spectacular Quinkan art galleries are internationally renowned and the region, as part of the broader Cape York Peninsula, is currently being considered for nomination for World Heritage status. It is difficult to understand how such a region, which should be off limits, could now be in danger.

However, a renewal in mining interest and increased access to the area suggests that the Cape is ‘ … on the crest of another wave of economic development’ (Cole and Buhrich 2012:67). Given the complex native title situation and the lack of clarity of statutory protection for the region, Cole and Buhrich question the capacity of the existing cultural heritage regime in Qld to trigger the necessary, detailed levels of consultation, research and survey to determine all cultural values, and to generate appropriate measures to protect them. Under current legislation traditional owners are required to negotiate with proponents of activities e.g. mining companies, and the right to negotiate is not a guarantee of protection. The most pressing question is now, how can the communities of the Quinkan area manage and protect their heritage with increased development interest and tourist visitation but without concomitant increases in funding and clear, enforceable legislative protection?


View of the unpopulated and undeveloped Quinkan region (photograph by Noelene Cole).

A key contribution of this article is Cole and Buhrich’s review the history of cultural heritage management in Qld, they take readers through how successive legislative acts have affected the management of Aboriginal cultural heritage the Quinkan region. Extensive detail is provided within the article, but briefly the following points are important to understand the current situation. Part of the Quinkan region (estimated by the authors to be less than half of the greater region) was declared a Designated Landscape Area (DLA) in 1987; DLA002 ‘Gresley Pastoral Holding – Crocodile Station’. Under the Cultural Record Act 1987, DLAs are areas where it is deemed necessary to prevent or regulate entry of people into an area and to restrict further development and disturbance due to high cultural heritage significance. This is the only form of special protection that this area has.

However, even this protection is uncertain. Whilst the current cultural heritage legislation in Qld, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003, recognises DLAs it does not clarify how they are regulated.  The main way that DLAs provide protection is through the Environmental Code of Compliance, where they provide special protection from standard mining leases through the requirement that there is no mining in a DLA or within 500 m of one (but this code can be overridden with special conditions from the state).

Map of DLA002 with exploration leases for minerals overlain (correct as of August 2012).

Map of DLA002 with exploration leases for minerals overlain (correct as of August 2012).

An important area outside of the DLA, well known to Australian archaeologists, is Sandy Creek. This area, a unique cultural landscape featuring numerous archaeological sites, has a high level of cultural and scientific significance with demonstrated Pleistocene occupation established through excavation (Morwood et al. 1995) and direct rock art dating (Cole and Watchman 2005). But with no Native Title the only protection that this significant area (and the numerous others in the same situation) has is the self-regulated Duty of Care applicable to all Indigenous cultural heritage in Qld.

The Sandy Creek landscape (photograph by Alice Buhrich).

The Sandy Creek landscape (photograph by Alice Buhrich).

There has been considerable interest in the media on the threat of mining to the Quinkan rock art. Exploration permits for minerals and coal currently exist over most of the Quinkan rock art region, some of which significantly overlap and border DLA002. It is important to note that whilst few exploration leases develop into viable mines, the process of establishing whether a mine will be viable involves considerable ground impacts, including establishing access tracks, entry of personnel, 4WDs and equipment, the setting up of base camps, and extensive drilling programs in the final exploration stage. The Quinkan area has been principally protected by its inaccessibility and remoteness, as such the establishment of 4WD tracks, which could seem innocuous, poses a significant threat especially through allowing unmanaged access.

Recent outrage over the proposed Jacaranda Minerals application has provoked a response from the company but it has not (to the knowledge of this author nor Cole or Buhrich) withdrawn its applications. Such outrage is important for raising the profile of this issue within Australia and internationally, a critical step towards protection. Alice Buhrich commented that,

This issue has highlighted a major problem with the mineral exploration assessment process. Jacaranda Minerals applied for exploration under the Environmental Code of Compliance, when 90% of their permit area covers the Designated Landscape Area (DLA), and DLA’s are excluded from exploration activities according to the conditions of the Code. It is worrying that the potential impacts on the cultural values of this highly significant area were not recognised by the applicants, land council or indeed the government departments responsible for assessing these applications.

The publicity is positive for future applications, however, there four exploration leases currently granted over the Quinkan rock art area and another five lodged. Of these leases, four do not cover the DLA and therefore no special conditions for heritage protection are in place, other than the self-regulated Duty of Care.

Laura Rangers at Split Rock in Quinkan country (photograph Noelene Cole).

Laura Rangers at Split Rock in Quinkan country (photograph Noelene Cole).

Thousands of people visit the Quinkan region each year, and Cole and Buhrich (2012:72) predict that with improved access roads these numbers will increase. This places more impetus on securing adequate funding to manage the increased impact of tourism in this region. Systematic government funding to assist the Aboriginal communities to manage their cultural heritage has been consistently recommended by cultural heritage specialists for decades as well as being called for by the communities themselves. Such funding could facilitate a well-managed rock art tourism project, which would provide opportunity for cross-cultural understanding and to showcase the outstanding art of this region, whilst protecting heritage. This is yet to eventuate.

Mushroom Rock showing rock art panels and surrounding landscape (photograph Noelene Cole).

Mushroom Rock showing rock art panels and surrounding landscape (photograph Noelene Cole).

By shining a light on a complex issue this article and the recent media coverage have significantly increased public awareness of the failings of the current cultural heritage legislation and its implementation. That so many exploration leases have been lodged and approved in this region is indeed worrying and highlights the need for increased support of the local Aboriginal communities to respond to these escalating pressures and secure adequate and long-lasting protection for their cultural heritage.


Cole, N. and A. Buhrich 2012 Endangered rock art: Forty years of cultural heritage management in the Quinkan region, Cape York Peninsula. Australian Archaeology 75:66–77.

Cole, N. and A. Watchman 2005 AMS dating of rock art in the Laura Region, Cape York Peninsula. Antiquity 79:661–678.

Morwood, M.J., D.R. Hobbs and D. Price 1995 Excavations at Sandy Creek 1 and 2. In M.J. Morwood and D.R. Hobbs (eds), Quinkan Prehistory: The Archaeology of Aboriginal Art in SE Cape York Peninsula, pp.71–92. Tempus 3. St Lucia: Anthropology Museum, University of Queensland.

For more information:

The Interactive Resource and Tenure Maps allow users to see the extent to which exploration leases overlap the Quinkan reserves. The Quinkan reserves (DLA002) can be viewed by zooming in on the Laura region and selecting ‘Constrained Land’ and the exploration leases overlaid by selecting ‘Current Expl. Permits Coal’ and Current Expl’ Permits Mineral’.

The current cultural heritage legislation for Qld is available here.  For more information on Native Title and the right to negotiate please refer to the Qld Government Native Title page.   Information on what Indigenous land use agreements are can be found here.

In November 2012 Dr Noelene Cole was interviewed about this issue by SBS Radio, a podcast of this interview can be found here.

This issue was the front cover story of The Australian, 2 March 2013, which included an interview with traditional owner Thomas George of Laura. Several national and international news articles have been recently published and are available online, including articles by The Global Mail, The Guardian, the Courier Mail and The Australian (twice).