The first Australians’ connection to country
The oral traditions of Aboriginal Australians attest to a long and abiding connection between people and their Country.
While archaeological records suggest that this connection may stretch back at least 50,000 years, western science has otherwise shed little light on how Aboriginal Australians have survived and thrived on the diverse and changing Australian landscape.
Our internationally celebrated research is filling that gap and setting what’s widely considered a new benchmark for working with indigenous peoples all over the world. The landmark “Aboriginal Heritage Project” is using DNA analysis to reconstruct Australia’s extensive pre-European-settlement genetic history—using a unique collection of hair samples collected between the 1920s and 1960s, together with cultural, linguistic, and genealogical data curated at the South Australian Museum.
The project’s findings are of enormous historical and cultural significance.
“The genetic data reveals that Aboriginal Australians are the direct descendants of human migrants that arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago, before spreading rapidly south following along the east and west coasts,” says researcher Dr Ray Tobler.
“But strikingly, following that initial wave there is little evidence of population movements across the continent over the subsequent 50,000 years, despite considerable climate and environmental change.”
“The genetic data suggest a remarkably long and enduring connection between Aboriginal people and Country that may be unique in the world and helps explain to a general audience why connection to Country is so central to Aboriginal Australian culture.”
The project’s first phase involved analysing maternal genetic lineages using DNA from 111 hair samples that were originally collected from Aboriginal communities in south-eastern Queensland and around South Australia’s central and western coasts. The team is now using Y chromosome markers to explore the relationship between male lineages and specific regions, and genomic data from further samples around Australia to start to understand how Aboriginal Australians have adapted to their environments so successfully.
A defining feature of the Aboriginal Heritage Project is that it’s a partnership with Indigenous Australians. Extensive family consultation and consent is required before any hair samples are analysed, and these groups are always the first to hear, and help interpret, the results.
“The ongoing success of the project is conditional on building lasting relationships between the research team and Aboriginal families, which we hope will extend for the foreseeable future so to provide a detailed ‘genetic reference map’ for current and future generations of Aboriginal and other Australians.”
“This map could ultimately help to facilitate repatriation of cultural artefacts and ancestral remains, or allow anyone to trace their Aboriginal Australian origins.”