They are coming home. Scientists say that ancient DNA can help bring the bones of Aboriginal Australians back to the land where they came from.
Remains Of Aboriginal Australians Might Be Repatriated
In the 1800s, the remains of thousands of Aboriginal Australians were stolen from their graves and sold to museums around the world. When descendants request for the remains to be brought back to Australia, they often have to fight for years to convince scientists of their connection.
"Our old people's remains have been stolen from this country, and they're global, whether they be in London, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland - even in America," said Gudju Gudju Fourmile, an elder of the Yidniji and Gimuy Walubara people, in an interview with The New York Times. "Our old people's spirits won't rest until they're back on their own country."
However, there might be a way to bring the remains back to the land where they came from. In a study published in the journal Science Advances, scientists reveal how analysis of DNA extracted from ancient remains recovered from several sites could solve the problem.
Researchers from Griffith University worked together with Aboriginal elders and Queensland Museum to determine the origin of the Aboriginal Australian remains for the purpose of repatriation. The remains used have been either excavated from burial sites by community request or from documented repatriation care of the Queensland Museum.
Joanne Wright, one of the scientists behind the study, explained that the team worked closely with the elders, particularly Thaynakwith Elder Tapij Wales from Weipa who wanted to know if the remains of an ancient woman was related to his people. It was the Aboriginal elder who asked if the DNA of the living community in Weipa can be compared with the DNA of the recovered remains.
Sadly, he passed away before the study was completed.
How Ancient DNA Could Return Stolen Remains
The research team extracted DNA from the remains of 27 pre-European settlements from sites in Queensland and New South Wales. From analyzing mitochondrial DNA, they found the origins of about 62.1 percent of Aboriginal Australian remains that were part of the research.
However, researchers could not find the origins of 37.9 percent of the remains either because there was a lack of contemporary match or because the mitochondrial haplotypes were geographically widespread.
Nuclear DNA, meanwhile, yielded positive results. Analysis matched 100 percent of the ancient remains to their precise burial sites.
"This is our 'positive control' experiment — we know where these remains came from, so if we find the closest living relative is from the area where the bones came from, then we know that the method works properly," added David Lambert who is also involved in the research.
The team said that the technique can be used to repatriate stolen remains, but whether to use it or not is a decision that can only be made by Aboriginal Australian communities.