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Aboriginal hair shows 50,000 years connection to country

Aboriginal hair shows 50,000 years connection to country

Image: Map of field stations visited from 1921 to 1965

New research led by Australian Laureate Fellow, Professor Alan Cooper, at The University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) has produced the first detailed genetic map of Aboriginal Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans. Researchers analysed mitochondrial DNA from hair samples collected during the early 20th Century, to establish that Australia’s Aboriginal people were continuously present in the same discrete geographic areas for up to 50,000 years. These findings reinforce Aboriginal communities’ strong connection to country and represent the first detailed genetic map of Aboriginal Australia prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The genetic analysis suggests that modern Aboriginal Australians are descendants of a single founding population that crossed a land bridge into Australia from New Guinea, and then moved around the east and west coasts of Australia, eventually meeting in South Australia only three or four thousand years after their initial arrival in northern 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,” says Professor Alan Cooper. “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.”

The Aboriginal Heritage Project is led by ACAD, who emphasise that a central pillar of the research is that results are first discussed with Aboriginal families and communities to get Aboriginal perspectives from the outset, and analyses are only conducted with their consent. The research model was developed under the guidance of Aboriginal elders, the Genographic Project, and professional ethicists.

The new research, published in Nature, was funded by the ARC Linkage Projects scheme with financial or additional research support from the Australian Genome Research Facility, Bioplatforms Australia, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers, and the National Geographic Society.

An ARC Discovery Indigenous grant recipient, Dr Ray Tobler, will now begin extending the research to investigate paternal lineages and information from the nuclear genome. 

Media issued by: The University of Adelaide.

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