A 100-year-old lock of hair from a West Australian Aboriginal man has led to the discovery that Aborigines are directly descended from the first people to leave Africa more than 70,000 years ago.
The find reinterprets world history by showing that the ancestors of modern Australian Aboriginal people reached Asia at least 24,000 years before other human migrations that produced present-day Europeans and Asians.
A large team of international researchers used the century-old hair sample to piece together the human genome and the results were published in the international journal Science. The study was headed by Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen.
Willerslev said: "While the ancestors of Europeans and Asians sat somewhere in Africa or the Middle East − yet to explore their world further − Aboriginal Australians were the first modern humans to traverse unknown territory in Asia and finally cross the sea into Australia. It was a truly amazing journey that must have demanded exceptional survival skills and bravery."
Dr Joe Dortch from the University of Western Australia and two researchers from Murdoch University in Western Australia were also part of the team. Dortch said archaeological evidence already showed that modern humans first reached Australia about 50,000 years ago but this new study re-wrote the story of how they arrived.
The lock of hair was donated by an Aboriginal man from the goldfields to a British anthropologist in the early 20th century and used by the research team to explore the genetics of early Australians and gain insights into how humans first spread across the globe.
The genome, shown to have no genetic input from more recent Australian arrivals, revealed that Aboriginal ancestors split from the first modern human populations to leave Africa, between 64,000 and 75,000 years ago. The study shows that Aboriginal Australians have the longest association with land on which they live today.
"The collaboration with traditional owners produced a great result," Dortch said. "It shows that Aboriginal people have been here for an immense period and [this finding] will help focus archaeological research into the earliest evidence for people in Australia - we're very much looking forward to future collaborations."
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