Australia: Aboriginal cave art 'only few years old'

Aboriginal hand stencil Image copyright The Australian

A piece of cave art resembling an ancient Aboriginal hand stencil, found near a controversial Australian coalmine project, has turned out to be less than four years old, it's been reported.

The drawing was found by environmentalist Chris Jonkers in a cave in the Ben Bullen forest west of Sydney in April. Mr Jonkers is non-committal on the possible origins of the painting. "We're not experts on Aboriginal heritage," he told The Australian newspaper. "We're sort of plant people, interested in water quality and environment, but the Aboriginal heritage stuff is not our forte."

The Australian coal-mining company Coalpac is trying to expand the operations of the Invincible Colliery and Cullen Valley Mine in the area, a project opposed by some environmentalists and Aboriginal groups. The Lithgow Environment Group, which has Mr Jonkers as its vice-president, says it has serious concerns that the proposed highwall mining practices would destabilise the cliffs and lead to a "permanent loss of irreplaceable cave art" and yet-to-be-discovered archaeological sites.

The report assessing the stencil as a modern replica was written by the engineering consultancy firm Aecom Australia for Coalpac. It says the "questionable" hand stencil has none of the hallmarks of genuine traditional stencils, and that its colour pigment has been applied too thickly and is easy to see.

The "now obvious" rock stencil was not there when the site was previously inspected by archaeologists in December 2010, the paper reports. But Mr Jonkers says he did not think the stencil would be so young. "I didn't think anyone would do such a thing," he says. "I must admit I didn't look all that carefully."

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