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The Story Untold - The links between Australian Aboriginal and Indian tribes

Group of Aboriginals Group of Aboriginals - Tenterfield, NSWAustralian Aboriginals, 1894- / photographer G.W. Wilson Malayali Tribe and Rock Art Source:

In Part One of this two-part radio special, originally published in 2014, SBS Executive Producer Kumud Merani examines the links between India and Australia going back thousands of years and how the science of genetics has played a role in casting new light on our ancient ancestors. Click on the audio links to hear the story.

Long before we marked boundaries on the earth, indigenous peoples crossed the continents and sailed the ancient coastlines.

We don’t know exactly what drove them on their journeys, but anthropologists and archaeologists believe these early humans were following migratory herds, looking for richer hunting and fishing grounds, or simply following their curiosity to see what lay beyond the next beach or over the nearest mountain range.

The science of genetics is casting new light on our ancient ancestors like never before – and recent studies are hinting at an ever more complex patchwork of populations and migration routes in our prehistory.

One of the most intriguing histories that geneticists are uncovering is of the waves of first peoples who arrived in Australia.

Aboriginal Rock Art - Emu - Boomerang and Hands (AAP/Mary Evans/Ardea/John Cancalosi) | NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Aboriginal Rock Art - Emu - Boomerang and Hands Date:
Ardea Picture Library

New research is linking not only the neighbouring peoples of Papua New Guinea and Oceania to Australian Aboriginals but now points to a wave of prehistoric migration to Australia – from India.

The idea of an Indian link to ancient Australia is not altogether new.

Dr Raghvendra Rao is a lead researcher from the Anthropological Survey of India and has been engaged in investigating contact between Indians and Austalia’s first peoples. Physical similarities with indigenous tribes in Southern India and Australian Aboriginal’s were observed and studied in early anthropological studies as far back as the 1870s, researchers then suggested that links between ancient Indians and Australian Aboriginal tribes were based on measurements of the human body. 

"This was one of the supports which we were building upon earlier studies in 1856 by Huxley, that there are morphological similarities between Indian and Australian Aboriginal tribes. This also was supported by Anthropometric evidence by Burt Shell.  See any Australian Aboriginal photographs… and you see Central Dravidian tribes, you see the facial features are similar.”

However, until a 90-year-old tuft of hair yielded the first complete genome of an Aboriginal Australian in 2011 – there was no real proof.

The 2011 genome study indicated that Australian Aboriginals descend from the first humans to venture beyond Africa more than 60,000 years ago.

The Aboriginal genome also revealed strong genetic links to the neighbouring peoples in modern Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and parts of Oceania.

Then, in 2013, Dr Irina Pugach and Dr Mark Stoneking, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, succeeded in analysing large-scale genotyping data from Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, and Southeast Asians.

Dr Stoneking explains.

“What we did in this study was to analyse genomic variations so that we are looking at genetic markers across the genome of Australians and other populations.”

The researchers at the Max Plank Institute say they uncovered a common origin for populations in Australia, New Guinea and the Mamanwa in the Philippines, supporting the long-held view that these peoples represent the descendants of an ancient southwards migration out of Africa some 60,000 years ago.

However, what surprised them was substantial gene flow from another wave of people who arrived in Australia, some 4,000 years ago - long after the first Australians settled the continent, and all the evidence places the origins of that influx of people somewhere in the south of today’s India.

Sketches of warriors on horseback with swords in their hands drawn by primitive people at Bhimbetka Caves near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Sketches of warriors on horseback with swords in their hands drawn by primitive people at Bhimbetka Caves near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Getty

Co-author of the research, Irina Pugach estimates that ancient Indians came to Australia around 2,300 BC  - approximately 141 generations ago.

She compared the genomes of 344 individuals in Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia - and India. She estimates that the Indians contributed nearly 10% to the Australian Aboriginal genomes.

Co-author of the research, Irina Pugach, estimates that ancient Indians came to Australia around 2,300 BC  - approximately 141 generations ago.

For Dr Nitin Saksena, a Geneticist and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, the DNA evidence from a slew of new studies which follow the landmark Max Planck study, support the view of Indian migration to ancient Australia.

One the lineage of the mother the mitochondrial DNA that mother passes to children and that is quite clear- there are two or three studies based on mitochondrial DNA of genes passed from Melanesian, Papua New Guinea and Indians into Australian Aboriginals. Then there is the study of Alan Red in 2010- this is done through the study of Y chromosome which is actually the paternal lineage, and what really happens is that this study of mitochondrial DNA from mother and Y chromosome – both studies point out the relationship between the Australian Aboriginals, Papua New Guinea, Melanesians and also Indians.”

Geneticists in India have also been focusing on the Australia-India link

The Anthropological Survey of India supports a deep genetic link between Indian tribes and Australian Aborigines.

When the Anthropological Survey of India sampled 966 samples of individuals from 26 different modern-day Indian tribes, they found a genetic marker that until recently had only been seen in Australian Aboriginals.

Lead researcher Dr Raghvendra Rao, says maternal DNA passed down from linking mother to daughter over thousands of years reveals telltale genetic evidence of a deep link to Australian Aboriginals:

“Among them what we found was 7 individuals shared a DNA linkage with the Australian Aboriginals that is M 42. M42 is the DNA of Australian Aboriginals published earlier. These 7 individuals came from Austro-Asiatic tribes from Eastern India and also Dravidian tribes from Central India.”

The seven individuals shared the M 42 mitochondrial DNA marker that is prevalent genetic “sign-post” otherwise unique to Australian Aboriginals.

Wild dingo
AAP

Geneticists now believe that the DNA record has solved another mystery of ancient Australia – the introduction of the Dingo and a sudden spread of sophisticated stone tools across the continent.

Dr Saksena thinks – it might have been the Indians who brought new technology and hunting dogs – that went on to become Australia’s iconic wild canine, the dingo.

“We currently know that the genetic link has been actually dated back through molecular dating to 4,300 years. And during that time we see actually the microlithic tools and the development of other tools for human survival which came into existence and also the fossils of the dingo were discovered at the same time in Australia.”

But not all are convinced

But genetic studies seek to link evidence in the genome to the archaeological record - not all of the scientific community is convinced.

Professor Ian Lilley teaches of Australian-Asian archaeology, Anthropology and Aboriginal studies at Queensland University.  He explains the argument that it's not about whether there was a prehistoric influx of Indians to Australia – rather when it happened and if there is any evidence of impact on the indigenous population.

“We know that very ancient people who were the first to settle in Australia had to have come through India at some stage on a journey out of Africa- that was tens of thousands of years ago. This new material says Indigenous Indians were here about four and a half thousand years ago.

"The implications that they hang off this finding caused a bit of bother with Archaeologists. The problem with that is dating so precisely which is just not possible but two- The whole time frame that they discussed depends entirely on how one measures the human generation.”

Professor Lilley believes the geneticists got it wrong when they conclude that people from the Sub Continent arrived some 4,300 years ago based on a calculation of 141 generations of about 30 years.

In his experience, working with tribal societies, a single human generation is more likely to be 15 or 20 years – bringing forward the arrival of the ancient Indians – by at the most - some 2,000 years.

Prof Lilley also raises some other concerns.

He says the latest original study was too quick to draw conclusions tying their evidence with the archaeological record of the appearance of more sophisticated stone tool technology about 4,500 years ago.

“The other side which is more of a concern to archaeologists is that they hook an impossibly precise and quite insecure date to what we think we once saw as changes in the archaeological records- so they say the Dingo appeared and stone tools changed all around the time of this proposed movement from India.”

Archaeologists have been debating the causes behind the dramatic change in stone tool technology about 4,500 years ago – and also about who brought the dingo to Australia around the same time.

Prof Lilley believes that the sophistication of stone tools took place out of necessity when hunting became difficult during a period about 4,500 years ago when Paleo-climatic records show Australia’s climate grew particularly hot and dry at that time.

He’s reluctant to tie the spread of stone tools technology to new arrivals from India.

The genetic record now makes it seem certain that the Australian continent has witnessed the ebb and flow of waves of ancient migrations.

And that in the centuries before the modern era – families of people similar to tribes that still survive in southern India, came ashore on the beaches of northern Australia.

Did the newcomers stare in amazement at the kangaroos, the wombats the Emus?

Did the two peoples learn to speak to each other’s - and did they influence each other’s language?

Did they discover the Southern Cross in the night sky? Did the two peoples bind in Spirit or were they divided in their Spiritual beliefs?

In Part Two of the “The Story Untold,” we’re going to look beyond genetics and anthropology to other clues linking India and Australia in language, spirituality  - and even tantalising indications that the Australian continent was known to ancient Indians thousands of years before European contact.

We shall also hear voices from the Australian Aboriginal community, and their response to the revelations that genetic research is uncovering.

Transcript of audio feature originally broadcast in 2014.

The Story Untold" was awarded Best Feature of the Year in 2015 NSW Premier Multicultural Media Awards and it was also a finalist as Best Human Interest Story in this year's New York Festivals’ International Radio Program Awards.

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