Bidyadanga resident Frankie Shoveller at the beach where he collected a human skull. (Supplied: Frankie Shoveller)
A human skull has surfaced at a beach in northern Western Australia, a discovery police say is not unusual in outback Australia, where the skeletons of Aboriginal people remain tucked in caves or trees from pre-colonial times.
The skull was spotted by a quad bike rider at La Grange Bay, south of Broome, with police enlisting local Karajarri man Frankie Shoveller to help collect it.
“It was a bit scary picking up something like that, was the first time I’ve ever done it,” Mr Shoveller said.
“We think it might have been sitting there a long time, because it looked pretty old.
“I was talking to my brother and he’s been telling me there were a lot of the old people living in the area, so it might be one of their skulls … hopefully police are going to find out who it is and get a date on it.”
Officer-in-charge of the nearby Bidyadanga Station, Senior Sergeant Chris Fox, said the site where the skull was found was not being treated as a crime scene.
Frankie Shoveller says he felt spooked as he picked up the skull with gloves. (Supplied: Frankie Shoveller)
“There’s no trauma to the skull so it’s not a reportable death as far as we’re concerned, so we’re not going to conduct an investigation for the coroner,” he said.
“We’ve photographed the skull and sent the details to the pathologists and Perth so they can make a determination.”
The early feedback from the pathologists is that the skull is from an Aboriginal person who died a long time ago, triggering a referral to the state department responsible for recording and monitoring Aboriginal heritage sites.
Find not unusual in remote areas
It is surprisingly common for historical skeletons to turn up in bushland and coastal cliffs in remote areas.
That is because for thousands of years, Aboriginal people interred the remains of people who died in rock ledges, caves, sand dunes and even up trees.
In WA, the discovery of old or ancient Indigenous remains triggers a referral to the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage, because it could have implications for future development proposals in the areas where the bones are found.
In a statement, the department confirmed it was a relatively frequent occurrence.
“There are on average two to four sets of remains that are reported each year,” a spokesperson said.
“If you discover Aboriginal remains, please do not interfere with the burial area. Instead notify the registrar of Aboriginal sites and WA Police.
“It is important to record the location so that directions can be provided to the police and registrar to relocate the site.”
Karijarri people from the Bidyadanga area repatriate remains of their ancestors in a separate burial ceremony. (Supplied: Scott Herring)
It is then usually left up to the traditional owners of the land to decide whether the bones are buried where they were found or relocated to a different site.
Senior Sergeant Fox, who has been charge of the Bidyadanga Police Station for three years, said he expected further skeletons would be found in the area.
“There are a number of bones that have been located, recently as well,” he said.
“Historically there are some Japanese divers for the pearls that were buried in the sand dunes from when they passed away all those years ago, so there are bones all through our network of sand dunes and beaches.”