Connected to country: Australia’s genetic history

The University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA is reconstructing the remarkable 50,000 year human history of Australia and revealing the deep origins of Aboriginal cultural and spiritual attachment to place. The work is also enabling displaced families’ histories to be retraced.

For some time, the history of Australia’s Indigenous peoples has been recognised as among the world’s oldest. Archaeological records indicate the first Australians arrived on this land around 50,000 years ago. Yet almost nothing has been known of how they evolved and survived from that time to European settlement.

Research underway at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) in collaboration with the South Australian Museum is changing that. The centre’s landmark Aboriginal Heritage Project is using DNA analysis—leveraging a scientifically priceless SA Museum collection of hair samples collected between the 1920s and 1960s—together with cultural, linguistic and genealogical data to reconstruct the genetic history of Australia.

According to the project’s lead researcher, ACAD Director and 2016 South Australian Scientist of the Year, Professor Alan Cooper, their findings are already proving of enormous significance, and particularly for Australian Indigenous communities.

“We’ve been able to show modern Aboriginal Australians are the descendants of a single wave of human migrants that rapidly moved south in parallel routes around the east and west coasts,” says Professor Cooper. “The two coastal colonisation movements appear to meet up somewhere in South Australia.”

Most striking of all, Professor Cooper adds, is the finding that during the subsequent 50,000 years—amidst tumultuous climate and environmental change—there was very little population movement or mixing between regional populations.

“These patterns are unlike anything else seen around the world,” he says. “They help explain why the ‘connection to country’ is so central to Aboriginal Australian culture. Survival for 50,000 years in one particular area would have demanded the deepest relationship to country.”

“The work also suggests the diversity in Aboriginal Australian populations today is a result of adaptation to the particular features of their local environments.”

The research is being conducted in close collaboration with Aboriginal families and communities, and involves obtaining the consent of the descendants of the original hair donors.

“Ultimately, we aim to provide a reference map that current and future generations of Aboriginal people can use to retrace their family and regional history, including the displaced Stolen Generations and their descendants.

“It could even help to facilitate repatriation of Indigenous artefacts and ancestral remains held at museums in Australia and overseas.”

The first phase of the project involved analysing mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from 111 hair samples, originally collected from Aboriginal Australian communities in Cherbourg, Queensland, and Koonibba and Point Pearce in South Australia.

As mtDNA are only inherited along female lineages, says Professor Cooper, the team is now seeking to use further genetic markers to determine how close the relationship is between male lineages and specific regions.

“By looking at additional information from the nuclear genome, we can not only examine genetic relationships across Australia in more detail, but also start to paint a picture of how Aboriginal populations adapted to their environments so successfully.”

Additional videos and interview footage on this research can be found HERE.

Related links:
Media release – 9/3/17
Nature publication – 9/3/17
Aboriginal heritage project website
Australian Centre for Ancient DNA
Professor Alan Cooper – researcher profile
SA Museum