In a new study, DNA in hair samples confirms Aboriginal people’s longstanding connection to Australia.
DNA from Aboriginal people gathered during expeditions from 1928 to the 1970s revealed that modern Aboriginal Australians descended from a certain group populating the same regions for up to 50,000 years, around which time the continent was still linked to the New Guinea.
Heritage Redefined Based On Hair
The first people’s populations spread rapidly around the east and west coasts and met somewhere in southern Australia about 2,000 years later, the team from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) of University of Adelaide concluded based on mitochondrial DNA from 111 hair samples.
The populations appeared to stay in certain geographical areas while continental migration took place, being continuously present in such regions for the next 50,000 years.
"This is unlike people anywhere else in the world and provides compelling support for the remarkable Aboriginal cultural connection to country,” said ACAD director and project lead Alan Cooper in a statement, hoping the findings will lead to a rewriting of the nation’s history to incorporate detailed Aboriginal history, spanning about 10 times the length of the European history currently being taught.
Mitochondrial DNA allows the tracing of maternal ancestry. The hair samples in this study was obtained with permission from Aboriginal families forced to relocate to Queensland’s Cherbourg and South Australia’s Koonibba and Point Pearce communities.
The university’s Board of Anthropological Research ran the expeditions from which the South Australian Museum’s collection of over 5,000 hair samples emerged.
The study built on and lent data from a 2016 paper, which sequenced the genome of 83 Aboriginal people. It revealed that Aboriginal Australians living in desert environments may have developed certain biological adaptations to survive the harsh, arid conditions.
According to its results, the occupation of the arid zone took place long before the last ice age, being contemporaneous with the Australian megafauna. The research puts into perspective the development of the Australian culture and civilization, by comparison to Europe's development.
Mapping Aboriginal History: Why It Matters
Study co-author Lesley Williams is the granddaughter of one of the donors of the hair samples.
“A lot of non-Indigenous people said we weren’t here. This establishes the truth of what we’ve been saying all along,” she said in an ABC report.
The DNA analysis was done only with consent from the donors and their descendants, with the results discussed face to face with families prior to publication and great sensitivity for the whole community employed, Williams added.
Kaurna Elder Lewis O’Brien, among the original hair donors and sitting on the advisory group for the research, said the results affirmed existing knowledge. “But it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world,” he emphasized, hopeful that the project will assist those from the Stolen Generation and others raring to reunite with their families.
The study was the first stage of a decades-long initiative to help people with Aboriginal heritage to trace their ancestry on the regional level and reconstruct their genealogical history, and to pursue the return of Aboriginal artifacts where they rightfully belong.
It seeks to get results from up to 1,000 samples in the next two years, and to extend the study to investigate paternal ancestry from DNA.
The findings were discussed in the journal Nature.
A study from early last year showed that Aboriginal Australian men were in isolation for half a century since their initial settlement, challenging the previous hypothesis that suggested the arrival of early inhabitants from India up to 5,000 years ago.
The modern humans who arrived in Australia almost 50,000 years ago were one of the earliest groups who settled outside of Africa, founding the ancestry of today's Aboriginal Australians.