Hair strands an Aboriginal man gave an ethnologist travelling across the country in the 1920s indicates Indigenous Australia is older than we thought.
Andrea Booth

24 May 2016 - 1:53 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2016 - 4:17 PM

Key points

  • Anthropologist explores ethical issues around study that finds Indigenous Australia dates around 70,000 years ago
  • Indigenous Australians say they are sceptical about scientific research about them

At a short train stop at Golden Ridge, east of Kalgoorlie, in 1923, an anonymous Indigenous man donated a lock of his hair to British ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon who was on his way to Perth from Sydney.

Mr Haddon, who was studying race based on hair samples, took it with him back to England where it was placed in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology.

It was then taken to Duckworth Laboratory led by anthropologist Jack Trevor and wound up with Danish evolutionary biologist Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Mr Willerslev wanted to extract DNA from it in his ambition to provide the first Aboriginal Australian genome. While hair strands don't have DNA, the roots do and traces can be found from a person touching them.

But during his study, which took place in 2011, he found a longer history of Indigenous Australia than previously believed – that Aboriginal Australians are likely descendants of people dispersing into eastern Asia possibly up to 75,000 years ago.

He used mathematics modelling to compare autosomal DNA – 23 pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus – found in the hair strands, to DNA from other parts of the world to determine if there were any similarities.

He found a common ancestor that dated back possibly between 62,000 and 75,000 years ago.

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Around that time, Indigenous Australians genetically separated from the people who became Europeans and Asians, according to human geneticist Dr John Mitchell.

He told NITV News that Indigenous Australians once lived on the land mass, known as Sahul, with other ethnic groups, but they did not mix.

“When the people came in to [Sahul], they went their ways very early and then stayed separate,” Dr Mitchell says.  

So when the land mass broke into what we now know as Australia, New Guinea, Seram and neighbouring islands, the people on each continent were distinctly genetically different.

“This applies even in the Torres Strait,” he says. “We’ve got some samples from Torres Strait [and DNA from the maternal line, known as] mitochondria, genetically, are not like mainland Australians.  

“We don’t find Australian mainland lineages in the Torres Strait. But we do find New Guinean in Torres Strait.”

Was it ethical to analyse an Aboriginal man's hair?

While Eske Willerslev's university ascertained he did not have to gain ethics approval for studying the man’s hair because it was "archaeological", he set a new ethical example.

Mr Willerslev sought approval to study the hair from the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, the Aboriginal organisation that represents the traditional landowners of the region where the hair was taken.

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After more than two hundred years of colonisation, Indigenous Australians have been suspicious about research conducted on them.

Indigenous rights campaigner Rodney Dillon told NITV News that scientific research can be viewed as another act of dispossession following British colonisation in 1788.

“Over the last 200 years, religion has let our people down, science has let our people down and governments have let our people down, so we come from a background of not trusting anybody.”

Indigenous Australians were particularly suspicious about the 1990s Human Genome Diversity Project, which began at the US’ Standford University and was composed of an international consortium of scientists.

Scientists from the project travelled around the world, including Australia, to study genetic diversity in the human race.

But Indigenous Australians protested and their DNA was not collected.

Professor Emma Kowal, an anthropologist at Deakin University and former medical doctor, is exploring questions around racism and science, which arose from studying the unidentified man's piece of hair. 

"Understanding how humans came to be, how we know them today, is the most essential story of who we are," she told NITV News. 

But the scientific community could learn from the ethical standards that Indigenous people demand of research, she says.

"The way that Indigenous people are demanding they be treated, I think is the way everybody wants to be treated."

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