A project creating the first genetic map of Aboriginal Australia before European arrival has won national recognition with the 2017 Eureka Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Scientific Research.
The Aboriginal Heritage Project is led by the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) in partnership with the South Australian Museum, and in collaboration with Aboriginal families and communities across Australia.
The research uses DNA from historical hair samples collected from Aboriginal people across Australia during a series of remarkable anthropological expeditions run by the University of Adelaide across Australia from 1928 through the 1960s, now held by the South Australian Museum along with detailed information about the birthplaces, family history, film, audio and written records.
“Australia constitutes one of the oldest and most important chapters in human history and yet it remains one of the least well understood,” says project leader Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD. “The Aboriginal Heritage Project is reconstructing this missing history and the details of some 50,000 years of Aboriginal heritage.
“The resulting map of Indigenous Australia will be a critical resource for people of Aboriginal descent who are culturally disconnected, members of the Stolen Generations, and for the broader Australian public who need to learn about Australian history. Accordingly, we would like to encourage corporations and businesses to consider supporting the project, and community engagement.”
“We are all thrilled about the recognition given to this project tonight but, even more important is the recognition for Aboriginal Australia and the contribution this project will make to help people connect with their land and culture, and to help with the reconciliation process.”
Presented annually by the Australian Museum, the Eureka Prizes are among Australia’s most prestigious science awards. Collecting the award at the gala dinner last night were team members including Professor Cooper, and Ms Isabel O’Loughlin, a key Aboriginal elder involved in the project.
The core of the project is the detailed and comprehensive consultation process with each community. Historic records and results are discussed individually with each family before and after the genetic analysis. The project is expected to run for at least 10 years and to involve the analysis of over 1000 historic individuals from around Australia.
“When we first make contact with families we are strangers, but we quickly become friends when they know that they are talking to Aboriginal consultants,” says Ms O’Loughlin, Community Liaison Officer with the South Australian Museum.
“This is a very emotional time which requires sensitivity. People want the project to go ahead securing information about the genetic map of Aboriginal Australia for future generations. Without the support and consent of people from Point Pearce and Koonibba in South Australia, Cherbourg in Queensland and Brewarrina in New South Wales, this project would not have happened,” she says.
A display about the project, including photos of cousins Uncle Lewis O’Brien and Aunty Jean Smith from 1938, their genealogy as put together by Norman Tindale, and a crayon drawing created by Aunty Jean, can be seen by the public at the South Australian Museum until 8 October.