In the language of the Wajarri Yamatji, it’s known as Thuwarri Thaa: ‘the place of the red ochre’. Maybe not the most dramatic of labels, but behind it is one of the most remarkable stories in mining, because it is arguably the oldest continuous mining operation in the world, where Australia’s Aboriginal tribes have been removing red ochre for somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 years…
Source: Anthropology from the Shed
Wilgie Mia’s ochre – which runs in red, yellow and green seams – has been in demand for so long because of its rare glowing lustre. It can be found in rock art and paintings across the region, and was favoured as body paint because its natural shine would catch the reflections from campfires and make its wearers glitter. The ochre was highly important in Aboriginal culture and remains so today.
Evidence has been found of its trade, from tribe to tribe, more than 1500km from its location, and its appearance in Indonesia could even be the world’s first example of international commerce. Reliable estimates can be difficult to make across 30,000 years, but it’s thought that nearly 15,000 cubic metres of ochre have been extracted down the millennia.
How Aboriginal miners plied their trade
The mine is made up of open-cut pits, excavated caverns and underground galleries. It exhibits stope-and-pillar mining techniques – employed by Aboriginal miners to increase safety underground – plus pole scaffolding and wooden platforms to enable mining at different heights.
Source: Ancient Origins
Wajarri tradition credits the creation of Wilgie Mia to a dreaming ancestor animal, Marlu the red kangaroo. Wounded by an evil spirit, it lay down on the hillside, with the coloured ochres springing from different parts of his body: his blood for the red ochre, his liver for the yellow and his gall for the green.
In 1973 Wilgie Mia was declared a protected and restricted site; in 2011 it was added to the Australian National Heritage List; and this year to Western Australia’s State Register of Heritage Places. And it continues to be responsibly mined to this day.