The site, in Juukan Gorge, in Western Australia state’s resource-rich Pilbara region, featured two cave systems that contained artifacts indicating tens of thousands of years of continuous human occupation.
The May 24 demolition went ahead despite a seven-year battle by the local custodians of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People, to protect the site.
“We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP),” Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO Chris Salisbury said in a statement released Sunday.
“We are sorry for the distress we have caused. Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years,” the statement said.
“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership. As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.”
According to 7News, Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes said Rio Tinto was told about the significance of the site last October.
“The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto by PKKPAC as recently as March,” Hayes said.
He said the group only found out about Rio Tinto’s intentions on May 15. CNN Business reached out to Rio Tinto for comment on Hayes’ remarks and was directed back to the company statement.
Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said the “destruction should not have occurred,” adding that he had personally spoken to the traditional owners of the land.
“It’s incredibly important this doesn’t happen again,” said Wyatt, an indigenous Australian.
“The West Australian State Government needs to ensure that their legislation and approvals processes protect our Indigenous cultural heritage. It seems quite clear, that in this instance, the legislation has failed.”
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the country’s first leader to apologize to generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children forcefully taken from their parents by white Australians last century, said Rio Tinto’s “corporate arrogance had robbed all Australians.”
“Juukan Gorge’s shelters [are] nine-times older than Stonehenge, 23-times older than the Colosseum and 75-times older than Machu Picchu,” he posted on his official Twitter account.