About Aboriginal Heritage

Aboriginal culture is the oldest living cultures in the world, requiring recognition, management, protection and preservation.
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Aboriginal heritage holds significant value to Aboriginal people for their social, spiritual, historical, scientific, or aesthetic importance within Aboriginal traditions, and provides an essential link for Aboriginal people to their past, present and future. 

Aboriginal heritage could include rock art, ancient caves or burial sites, waterways, ceremonial sites or scar trees.  

It has been illegal to harm Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia for more than 50 years.

What is Aboriginal heritage?

An Aboriginal site means any place to which section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 applies. It defines Aboriginal heritage as:

  • any place of importance and significance where persons of Aboriginal descent have, or appear to have, left any object, natural or artificial, used for, or made or adapted for use for, any purpose connected with the traditional cultural life of the Aboriginal people, past or present;
  • any sacred, ritual or ceremonial site, which is of importance and special significance to persons of Aboriginal descent;
  • any place which, in the opinion of the Committee, is or was associated with the Aboriginal people and which is of historical, anthropological, archaeological or ethnographical interest and should be preserved because of its importance and significance to the cultural heritage of the State;
  • any place where objects to which this Act applies are traditionally stored, or to which, under the provisions of this Act, such objects have been taken or removed.

The Act protects all Aboriginal sites in Western Australia, whether they are registered or not. This includes Aboriginal sites, objects and ancestral remains.

Current Aboriginal Heritage legislation

  • The statutory body that makes recommendations to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs on Section 18 Notices is known as the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Committee, with male and female co-Chairs and majority Aboriginal representation.
  • Proponents and Native Title parties now have the same right of review for Section 18 decisions via the State Administrative Tribunal, with clear timeframes and an ability for the Premier to call-in a decision of ‘State significance’, to act in the interests of all Western Australians.
  • When a Section 18 has been approved, a new requirement for the owner to notify the Minister of any new information about an Aboriginal site – an important reform to help prevent another Juukan Gorge event occurring.
  • Where there is a change in ownership of land which is the subject of a Section 18 Consent, the consent can be transferred. New owners must notify the Minister, via ACHknowledge, within 14 days of the land transfer taking effect.

Under the Act, all landowners, be they freehold, leasehold, licensee, invitee or citizen, at large have one simple obligation – that is to not knowingly damage an Aboriginal cultural heritage site.

Examples of Aboriginal heritage

The following is an overview of the various types of sites that can be found in Western Australia. This list is not exhaustive.

Artefacts: An artefact site is a place where human activity is identifiable by the presence of a portable object or objects (for example - stone, glass, bone, shell) utilised or modified by Aboriginal people in relation to traditional cultural life past or present. 

Ceremonial: A place used for a formal act or series of acts prescribed by ritual, belief in a mythological manifestation, religious belief or observance, protocol or convention that is connected with the traditional cultural life of Aboriginal people past or present. 

Engraving: A motif – either figurative or non-figurative – on a rock surface produced by percussion or abrasion. Engravings are also often referred to as petroglyphs. 

Fish Trap: A stone, wood, or other similar structure made by Aboriginal people for catching fish. Such structures are generally found on the coast of Western Australia, and in its lakes and rivers. 

Grinding patches or Grooves: A place where grinding patches or grooves can be found. Grinding patches or grooves are smoothed areas or grooves on non-portable rock surfaces that have been created by grinding activity associated with food production such as seed milling, preparation of pigments, tool manufacture and/or maintenance and ritual. 

Historical places: A place that has historical associations with Aboriginal people and may or may not contain physical evidence of those associations. 

Man-made structure: The placement or arrangement, by Aboriginal people, of stone, wood or other material made into a structure for ceremonial or utilitarian purposes. 

Midden: A place where there is an accumulation of shell refuse that is derived from exploitation of a mollusc resource by Aboriginal people. Such sites may also contain artefacts, fireplaces, burnt shell and bones. 

Modified or Scarred Tree: A place with one or more tree(s), living or dead, that has been modified by Aboriginal people by removing the bark or wood resulting in the formation of a scar. This sort of modification was, and is, frequently done for the making of implements, tools or other materials that were used in traditional cultural practices. 

Mythological: A place that is connected to the spirit ancestors, in their various manifestations, of the 'Dreamtime' which continues to be important and of special significance to persons of Aboriginal descent. 

Painting: Places where Aboriginal people have painted on surfaces. Paintings – including daubings, drawings, stencils and prints – can be figurative or non-figurative markings or motifs on surfaces such as rocks, rock walls and trees at fixed locations that are produced by adding pigments and/or mediums, such as ochre, blood, beeswax, animal fats, vegetable dyes and tree saps. 

Quarry: Places where there is evidence for the extraction of stone or ochre. 

Repository/Cache: A place where cultural or utilitarian objects are/were taken, or stored, by Aboriginal people, either past or present. 

Skeletal material/Burial: A place where Aboriginal skeletal material is buried and/or where mortuary practices occurred. 

Check for Aboriginal heritage in WA

You can look up your area and check if there is Aboriginal heritage in the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Inquiry System (ACHIS).

ACHIS is an online system that stores locations and information about Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia. 

Find Aboriginal cultural heritage in WA

Results will include past survey reports, sites, protected areas and Native Title parties. 

Regulations and guidelines

Regulations and guidelines have been developed to support those engaging with the Act. 

Regulations are subsidiary legislation. 

The Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 1974 have been updated to complement the restored Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

The Aboriginal Heritage (Transitional Provisions) Regulations 2023 provide for a range of matters that existed under the previous legislation to be transitioned to the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

The Aboriginal Heritage (Fees) Regulations 2023 sets out fees that apply for applications under the Act. The proposed fees are:

Guidelines are policy documents which are not legally binding; they have been prepared by the Department to assist the public in understanding the legislative framework.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 Guidelines can assist landowners and proponents in determining whether the intended land use poses a risk of committing an offence under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

Consultation with Aboriginal people

There is a Consultation policy for section 18 applications which outlines the Government's expectations of applicants:
  • Consultation is to be undertaken with Aboriginal people prior to submitting an application under section 18 of the Act.
  • There are engagement principles, standards, processes and documentation required to support an application for approval. 

It is strongly recommended that a letter from the native title party and any other Aboriginal people consulted, setting out their views – particularly any non-objection to the notice and proposed works including impacts to heritage – be attached as part of the application.

A procedural fairness check is also undertaken by the Department as part of the assessment process to provide opportunity for the relevant Aboriginal people to have a say, including in the event that genuine consultation was not undertaken by a proponent.  

View the Consultation policy for section 18 applications

Ancestral remains

Ancestral remains are of great significance to everyone, including Aboriginal people, who feel strongly about the removal of remains from grave sites. It is important to know how to manage ancestral remains appropriately if found.

Aboriginal remains may be uncovered by natural forces or when sand or soil is being moved during a development. For example, industrial and residential development, roadworks and mineral or petroleum exploration. Also practices associated with agriculture, pastoralism and tourism where excavation or ground disturbance may be required and where burial sites may be uncovered.

If you discover remains, please do not interfere with the burial area. Instead, immediately notify the Registrar of Aboriginal Sites and the Western Australia Police.

Report an Aboriginal site or a potential offence against one

Preservation of Aboriginal sites is afforded by Section 17 of the Act and Regulations 6 to 10 of the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 1974.

How to report potential Aboriginal heritage

To provide information about a possible Aboriginal Site please use the ACHKnowledge portal. This can also be used to provide additional information about a registered Aboriginal site or other heritage place.

Refer to Aboriginal heritage search if you wish to access online or hardcopy information on Aboriginal sites and other heritage places.

Under section 15 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 the reporting of a site is compulsory.

If you have knowledge of a burial site, ancestral remains or any of the types of Aboriginal heritage that has not been registered or identified, you must report it to the Department or to a police officer. You can provide details of any such knowledge to aboriginalheritage@dplh.wa.gov.au

How to report a potential offence in relation to Aboriginal sites

Preservation of Aboriginal sites and objects is managed by section 17 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and Regulations 6 to 10 of the Aboriginal Heritage Regulations 1974.

Depending on the circumstances, an offence against the Act by an individual may be punishable by monetary penalties and imprisonment. An offence against the Regulations is punishable by a monetary penalty. An offence by a body corporate is punishable by a monetary fine and company officers may, in defined circumstances, also be charged.

How to report an offence

Report a damage to an Aboriginal site with the DPLH Investigations Unit

Repealed Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2021 has been repealed and an amended version of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is now the legislation to protect and manage Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia.

Any granted permits or approved or authorised management plans under the 2021 Act will automatically transition to a section 18 consent.

Some activities carried out under the 2021 Act remain valid, including activities that were authorised, considered exempt, did not require approval or where there was an assessment of no risk of harm. However, no exemptions apply to new activities.

Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 

This Act was amended by Parliament in 2023 and provides the legal framework for the protection and management of Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia.

Under the Act, all landowners, be they freehold, leasehold or mining tenement holder have one simple obligation – that is to not knowingly damage an Aboriginal site.

Need help?

For more information and support, call the Department on 6551 8002 and select Option 1 to speak to one of our staff or complete the below form:

 Aboriginal Heritage Enquiry Form

Instructions on how to use ACHIS are available on the portal. You can also download a detailed ACHIS user guide (PDF 1.12MB) or our team will be happy to help you complete your property search.