There are 2,500 registered Aboriginal heritage sites on the Burrup peninsula and surrounding islands, which are located near Karratha, 1,525km north of Perth.
The area is also home to the US$2bn North West Shelf gas project, the largest oil and gas development in Australia.
The entry to the largest heritage site, a valley containing close to a million rock carvings dating back 40,000 years, is within a kilometre of a fertiliser plant. Last year the WA government removed a large umbrella heritage listing for the peninsula because it complicated development applications.
The research done by McDonald and her team was co-funded by Rio Tinto, which has a mining lease within the national heritage area, and Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation.