DNA from ancient hair sample confirms Aboriginal Australians’ ties to country

By Gemma Conroy 8 March 2017
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A new study has found Aboriginal Australians settled the continent in one quick sweep and have remained in the same regions for almost 50,000 years.

A NEW DNA ANALYSIS of hair samples has revealed Aboriginal communities have remained in the same regions since their first arrival 50,000 years ago – confirming the deep connection between Aboriginal people and country spanning thousands of years.

Published today in Nature, these are the first findings from the Aboriginal Heritage Project, which aims to build the first genetic map of Aboriginal Australia, helping communities to trace their ancestry and family history. The project is a partnership between the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and the South Australian Museum, which is home to an extensive collection of ancient hair samples.

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The initial results provide the most detailed snapshot of Aboriginal Australia before European colonisation over 200 years ago, and will play a major role in reconstructing the genetic history of communities across the country.

“These findings confirm what the Aboriginal community have known all along – that their deep ties with country stretch back thousands of years,” said study co-author Raymond Tobler, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Adelaide.

“We now have a line of evidence that verifies that knowledge, providing long-overdue recognition of the unique history and culture of Aboriginal communities.”

Researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA from 111 Aboriginal hair samples collected across Australia from 1928 until the 1970s. Mitochondrial DNA is often used to trace maternal ancestry and map out ancient lineages from degraded samples.

aboriginal australia field stations map

Map of field stations visited from 1921 to 1965. (From South Australian Museum Archives Norman Tindale Collection)

The results reveal that Aboriginal Australians living today are descendants from the first population that arrived in Australia 50,000 years ago, when the continent was still connected to New Guinea. Over a short period of 1500 to 2000 years, groups spread out to the east and west coasts before eventually meeting in South Australia.

The findings surprised the research team, who are building strong relationships with Aboriginal communities across Australia to assist in the project.

“We didn’t expect to see such a strong connection between people and place,” said Raymond. “It shows how unique Aboriginal heritage is, as we haven’t seen results like this from other parts of the world.”

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While the new findings reveal fresh insight into the life of Aboriginal populations before European arrival, Griffith University evolutionary biologist David Lambert (who was not involved in the study) said that pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

“Looking at mitochondrial genomes alone is not sufficient when mapping out the genetic history of a population,” he said. “The researchers need to look at the complete genome to make a significant contribution to this field.”

Raymond said the next step in the project is gradually filling in these gaps by taking a closer look at the rest of the genetic material in the hair samples.

“The hair samples provided us with more genetic information than we expected, including genomic DNA,” he said. “The next step is analysing the rest of the DNA to learn more about the relationships between groups and smaller movements throughout Australia.”