Here is how the prestigious international magazine, ‘Nature‘ announced one of the most fascinating scientific projects revealing Australia’s extraordinary Indigenous past on March 8th:
Aboriginal Australians represent one of the longest continuous cultural complexes known. Archaeological evidence indicates that Australia and New Guinea were initially settled approximately 50 thousand years ago (ka); however, little is known about the processes underlying the enormous linguistic and phenotypic diversity within Australia. Here we report 111 mitochondrial genomes from historical Aboriginal Australian hair samples, whose origins enable us to reconstruct Australian phylogeographic history before European settlement. Marked geographic patterns and deep splits across the major mitochondrial haplogroups imply that the settlement of Australia comprised a single, rapid migration along the east and west coasts that reached southern Australia by 49“45‰ka. After continent-wide colonisation, strong regional patterns developed and these have survived despite substantial climatic and cultural change during the late Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. Remarkably, we find evidence for the continuous presence of populations in discrete geographic areas dating back to around 50‰ka, in agreement with the notable Aboriginal Australian cultural attachment to their country.

These are the first results from the Aboriginal Heritage Project, led by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) in partnership with the South Australian Museum. The Project drew on data and collection material collated by Joseph B. Birdsell and Norman B. Tindale during anthropological expeditions from 1928 through to the 1970s, during which 5000 hair samples were collected with their subject’s permission, and meticulously recorded.

It was anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton who drew this horde to ACAD’s attention, and the SA Museum has collaborated throughout this 12 year project. The ethical protocols involved were quite extraordinary “ contacting descendants of each subject; a factor that has limited the Project so far to just three areas “ two in SA at Point Pearce and Koonibba, and Cherbourg in Queensland.

Permissions obtained, researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA from 111 of the hair samples. Mitochondrial DNA allows the 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 in a landmass known as Sahul. Populations then spread rapidly “ within 1500-2000 years “ around the east and west coasts of Australia, meeting somewhere in South Australia. Three out of the four haplogroups chose to come down the eastern side, some later following the Murray/Darling system.

Amazingly, it seems that from around this time the basic population patterns have persisted for the next 48,000 years – showing that communities have remained in discrete geographical regions, says project leader Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD. This is unlike people anywhere else in the world and provides compelling support for the remarkable Aboriginal cultural connection to Country, reinforced through Songlines and Dreamtime narratives. 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.

A central pillar of the Aboriginal Heritage 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. Importantly, results are first discussed with the families to get Aboriginal perspectives before scientific publication. The research model was developed under the guidance of Aboriginal elders, the Genographic Project, and professional ethicists. Having established the model, this is the first phase of a longer 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. We’re really keen to get in touch with more Aboriginal communities and families, to get them interested in participating in the Project, Alan Cooper added.

Reconstructing the genetic history of Aboriginal Australia is very complicated due to past government policies of enforced population relocation and child removal that have erased much of the physical connection between groups and geography in Australia today, says Dr Wolfgang Haak, formerly at ACAD and now at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

This Aboriginal Heritage Project is able to exist because of the extensive records collected by Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell, which are held in trust for all at the South Australian Museum, says Brian Oldman, Director of the SA Museum. They 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 by this project to reconstruct history.

Peter Sutton wants to make it clear, There are five Aboriginal co-authors on the ‘Nature‘ article, plus a host of geneticists, mathematicians, an archivist, an archaeologist and an anthropologist/linguist (myself). This work took all the guts and social skills and family connections of the Aboriginal co-authors to have even been thinkable. In 2005 it was a question of political timing to get it going, with some key Aboriginal leaders giving us support in taking the plunge, Mick Dodson and Marcia Langton in the main.

The research will be extended to investigate paternal lineages and information from the nuclear genome, also to examine how the longevity of Aboriginal populations in different habitats across Australia has shaped the remarkable physical diversity found across modern Aboriginal Australians.