Hair reveals Aboriginal presence across 50,000 years

DNA in hair samples collected from Aboriginal people across Australia in the early to mid-1900s has revealed that populations of the first people have been continuously present in the same regions for up to 50,000 years – soon after their arrival in Australia.

In a paper* published in Nature last week, researchers at the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, in partnership with the South Australian Museum, say the findings reinforce Aboriginal communities’ strong “connection to country”. This is the powerful link that exists between Aborigines and the land on which they have long lived.

The researchers say the results represent the first detailed genetic map of Aboriginal Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans. These are also the first findings from the centre’s Aboriginal Heritage Project in which analyses were conducted on mitochondrial DNA from 111 hair samples collected during a series of remarkable anthropological expeditions across Australia from 1928 to the 1970s. They are part of the South Australian Museum’s unparalleled collection of hair samples.

Centre director and project leader, Professor Alan Cooper, says mitochondrial DNA allows tracing of maternal ancestry, and the results show that modern Aboriginal Australians are the descendants of a single founding population that arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago, while Australia was still connected to New Guinea. Populations then spread rapidly – within 1,500-2,000 years – around the east and west coasts of Australia, meeting somewhere in South Australia.

“Amazingly, it seems that from around this time the basic population patterns have persisted for the next 50,000 years – showing that communities have remained in discrete geographical regions,” Cooper says.

“This is unlike people anywhere else in the world and provides compelling support for the remarkable Aboriginal cultural connection to country. We’re hoping this project leads to a rewriting of Australia’s history texts to include detailed Aboriginal history and what it means to have been on their land for 50,000 years – that’s around 10 times as long as all of the European history we’re commonly taught.”

Cooper says a central pillar of the project is that Aboriginal families and communities have been closely involved with the project from its inception and that analyses are only conducted with their consent. Results are first discussed with the families to obtain Aboriginal perspectives before publication in scientific journals. The research model was also developed under the guidance of Aboriginal elders, the Genographic Project, and professional ethicists.

First phase

“This is the first phase of a decade-long project that will allow people with Aboriginal heritage to trace their regional ancestry and reconstruct family genealogical history, and will also assist with the repatriation of Aboriginal artefacts,” Cooper says.

An elder of the South Australian Kaurna people, Lewis O’Brien, is one of the original hair donors and has been on the advisory group for the study. He says Aboriginal people have always known that they have been on their land “since the start of our time”, but, he said, “it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world. This is an exciting project and we hope it will help assist those of our people from the Stolen Generation and others to reunite with their families.”

The ‘Stolen Generation’ is a reference to an estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families by state and federal agencies and church missions between 1905 and 1969. These actions were often driven by a belief that if so-called ‘half-caste’ children were taken from their families and brought up in white society, the Aboriginal race would eventually die out.

White critics, however, deny that this was the basis for the children’s removal and claim they were being ‘rescued’ because they were in danger living with impoverished Aboriginal communities.

This shameful period led to a nation-wide federal inquiry in 1995 and a formal apology to all Aboriginal Australians by Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in February 2008.

Dr Wolfgang Haak, one of the 24 co-authors of the Nature paper, says reconstructing the genetic history of Aboriginal Australia is very complicated because of past government policies of enforced population relocation and child removal. These had erased much of the physical connection between groups in Australia today. Haak was formerly at the centre in Adelaide and is now based at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Director of the South Australian Museum, Brian Oldman, says the heritage project relies on extensive records collected by early anthropologists and archaeologists across Aboriginal homelands. These include detailed information about the birthplaces, family history and family trees, film, audio and written records – allowing a wide range of approaches to be used to reconstruct history.

The research will be extended to investigate paternal lineages and information from the nuclear genome. Team member Dr Ray Tobler, a centre post-doctoral researcher who has Aboriginal heritage on his father’s side, will examine how the longevity of Aboriginal populations in different habitats across Australia has shaped the remarkable physical diversity found across modern Aboriginal Australians.

A video about the project can be seen via this link.

* Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia, Ray Tobler et al, Nature; 8 March 2017.