A handprint, Mylar slides, a box of “cosmic crayons” from the early 20th century—these are some of the things tucked in a back room of the South Australia Museum, relics of expeditions into Australia’s center. From the late 1920s through the 1970s, the University of Adelaide’s Board for Anthropological Research organized over 40 expeditions to learn about Aboriginal people. Sometimes traveling for months by camel, anthropologists recorded and collected whatever they could think of—genealogical charts, children’s drawings, sound recordings on wax cylinder, standardized tests, Rorschach blot responses, and hair samples.
Now, decades later, those hair samples—long filed away in small manila envelopes—have become a source of DNA for Ray Tobler and Alan Cooper. Specialists in ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, they wanted to know how humans first migrated across this continent, thousands of years ago. Although many Aboriginal people who gave hair samples to BAR had already been displaced from their homelands by European colonists, their family trees and stories allowed Tobler and Cooper to connect the samples with ancestral homes—and DNA sequences allowed them to see the relationships between groups. “We were able to see beyond the European disruption,” Cooper says.
Before the geneticists could work with the samples, though, they needed permission. In some cases, those whose hair samples were taken were still alive, as in the case of Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien, now 87 and an elder among the Karuna people, whose locks were on file along with a photo of himself as a boy wearing a dubious expression and a V-neck sweater. In other cases, community liaison officers had to track down descendants and explain the project. Jean Smith, a little girl in the same photo, has died, but her cousin, Claudia Smith, now 78 and a Narungga Elder, was able to give consent.
So far, Cooper and Tobler have published an analysis of the mitochondrial DNA from 111 samples taken from three Aboriginal communities—representing families that the Australian government and missionaries had moved from homelands all across the country. For each sample, the researchers washed the hair, then used enzymes to open the cells and allow the mitochondrial DNA—which is inherited from the mother only—to spool out. They copied the strands many times over, sequenced it, and then got to building their family tree.
Based on how similar the mitochondrial DNA samples were to each other, Cooper and Tobler started organizing their branches, giving them dates based on the average rate that random changes occur in mitochondrial DNA over the generations. Looking at the tree and the dates of each branch, Cooper and Tobler could see that the first groups that separated from the rest were in the far north of the country. Groups continued to split off through time one by one, down each coast, and then different lineages merged again at the very south of the country when the two waves of migration met at the bottom.
But all these splits and merges happened nearly 50,000 years ago. The groups remained stable afterwards, with just the slow tick-tock of random mutation showing the millennia that passed. Astonishingly, after a rapid influx to the continent and a speedy sweep around its coast, individual groups of Aboriginal people seem to have stayed largely sedentary and separate for upwards of 47,000 years—making them perhaps the people with the longest relationship to their home landscapes on Earth.
This was perhaps more surprising to the researchers than their subjects. Aboriginal people are known for their strong bond to their own country. “We are telling them something they already knew,” says project community liaison Amy O’Donoghue.
On September 6th, researchers and a descendant of the woman who provided one of those samples had lunch at the Museum of South Australia to celebrate the opening of a small exhibit about the project, taking some of the items collected by BAR out of the museum’s back rooms and putting them on display. Among the displays were the photos of Uncle Lewis Yerloburka O’Brien and Jean Smith, plus a childhood drawing by Smith, data cards in the elegant cursive handwriting of the last century, and a handwritten family tree.
Being able to see the old records and photos is often a deeply emotional experience for people, explain O’Donoghue and her fellow community liaison, Isabel O’Loughlin, both of whom are Aboriginal people themselves. For much of the 20th century, Aboriginal children in what is known as the “Stolen Generation” were taken from their homes and told not to speak their native languages. Sometimes the records “fill in the gaps” in their own family histories, O’Donoghue says. “People don’t realize how many children were taken,” Cooper says. “So many of them are desperate to find out about their Aboriginal origins.”
Others are touched by glimpses of their family members as young people. O’Donoghue brought one woman in her 60s film footage of her mother that was taken by anthropologists. “She cried her eyes out,” O’Donoghue says. “She never saw her mother as a happy person.” O’Loughlin and O’Donoghue work with an oral historian—the granddaughter of Tindale—who collects the stories that flow when the families see the collections.
Claudia Smith, granddaughter of one of those whose hair samples were included in the study, said over a sandwich at the museum cafe that the long tenure of Aboriginal peoples on the same landscapes doesn’t surprise her. Respect for land and territory was very important to her people. Her father taught her a traditional way to respect territorial boundaries. “When you get to the border you sat down, lit a fire and made smoke and waited for someone to greet you,” she says. And you wouldn’t think of eating or drinking in another group’s land without permission.
As part of their attempt to go beyond merely asking consent from Aboriginal peoples, the research team helped organize the exhibit to humanize the stories behind the samples and presented their results to Smith and the other relatives of those who had hair samples taken before publishing it in the journal Nature earlier this year. They say that a comprehensive nuclear DNA sequence analysis, in planning stages, may tweak the map a bit. The current map is based on the maternal line only; if men in the long pre-European era were more likely to move between territories, the map might be a bit more dynamic.
“I think the way Alan and his team approached the situation and how they are interacting with the indigenous communities is a rare example how these things should be done,” says Lars Fehren-Schmitz, an anthropologist at the University of California Santa Cruz who uses ancient DNA to shed light on migration patterns in South America. “Often there is only the geneticist collecting some samples, or drawing cell lines from some repository without actually considering the communities.”
Tobler and Cooper hope their map will help those Australians who are researching their own Aboriginal ancestors figure out where their homelands were—though they aren’t yet able to sequence interested members of the public. Among those eager to learn more about his own history is Tobler himself. There are Aboriginal ancestors on his father’s side of the family, he says but “my grandad didn’t talk about it.” He and his family could learn from their own hair what their grandfather declined to discuss. “We might find country,” he says.
Smith looks into the display case at her relative’s crayon drawing of Santa Claus, produced at the behest of BAR anthropologists on butcher paper. “I was told ‘don’t tell anyone you are black,’” she says. “Now my grandchildren stand up and tell the school they are Aboriginal and they are blue-eyed blondes. Now this history is there for the next generations.”