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Lake Victoria's traditional owners have launched legal action against the South Australian Government to prevent them refilling the lake and destroying the 7,000-year-old graves of their ancestors

MARIUS BENSON: The future of what's believed to be the world's largest ancient burial site is likely to be decided by a landmark legal challenge in the Federal Court.

The remains of more than 10,000 Aborigines were uncovered nearly four years ago after Lake Victoria, in western New South Wales, was drained for maintenance work. The lake is South Australia's largest water storage, and an environmental impact study into the effect of raising the level of the lake is expected to be completed within weeks. But as Mark Willesee reports, Lake Victoria's traditional owners have launched legal action against the South Australian Government in a bid to prevent the possible inundation of their ancestors.

MARK WILLESEE: In dry years, Lake Victoria, in remote western New South Wales, supplies 90 per cent of Adelaide's water, therefore it's a priceless resource for Australia's driest State. But during maintenance work in 1994 the lake was drained, revealing what's still regarded to be the world's largest pre-industrial cemetery. Since then Lake Victoria has remained depleted, and the South Australian Government has anxiously investigated ways of supplementing the State's limited water stocks. One option the Government has explored is refilling the lake, which archaeologists and the local traditional owners, the Barkindji people, claim would destroy the graves, some of which date back 7,000 years.

Adviser to the Barkindji, Mark Dengate, says in response to this threat, tribal elders have lodged an application with the Federal Court, seeking recognition that the Barkindji are the true owners of the flooded land.

MARK DENGATE: It's primarily to clarify the native title and determine it once and for all. There's been some contention for a long time over Lake Victoria, and the denial of access to one of the claimants, literally, triggered the opportunity to get into the courts and try to expediate the native title process.

MARK WILLESEE: An environmental impact statement has been commissioned to examine the effect of increasing Lake Victoria's level from three to 27 metres. What effect would this raising of the level have on the graves?

MARK DENGATE: Certainly the position of the elders has maintained the position that raising the water over the burials would be classed as desecration, which brings you into the Commonwealth Acts similar to what have been used at Hindmarsh.

MARK WILLESEE: Colin Pardoe is one person who's had the opportunity to closely study the Lake Victoria graves. He's a curator in the anthropology department at the South Australian Museum. Dr Pardoe believes reflooding the lake would deprive Australians of a unique archaeological link to the region's ancient Aboriginal inhabitants.

COLIN PARDOE: It's terribly important, from a purely archaeological sense, because I think we can't emphasise enough the amount of information that comes from the human remains, from human skeletons and how they were buried - much of our understanding of, not only human evolution, but things like how people organise themselves in social terms.

MARIUS BENSON: Dr Colin Pardoe, the curator in the anthropology department of the South Australian Museum.