DNA Country

A precious store of Aboriginal hair, collected last century,
may now tell a story tens of thousands of years old.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following story may contain images of deceased persons.

Now seen as DNA samples, the thousands of hair strands can be used to reveal the history of Indigenous people and their attachment to land – but will descendants approve?

In a locked room in Adelaide, stored among the South Australian Museum’s collection of Aboriginal cultural items too sensitive or sacred to be publicly displayed, sits a filing cabinet full of envelopes. There are around 7,000 of them, each of them small and neatly labelled with an inky handwritten number, and each holding a lock of human hair. Collected from Aboriginal men, women and children by anthropologists in the 1930s and 1950s, the hair was snipped, had its colour and texture noted and was then consigned to nearly a century of obscurity. Now an ambitious project, bringing together geneticists and those Aboriginal people’s descendants, is aiming to use these thousands of aged strands of hair to piece together 50,000 years of our continent’s genetic history.

Tindale watching one of his colleagues at work on a wireless in 1930.

When Australian anthropologist, entomologist and archaeologist Norman Tindale set out with his long-time collaborator, American anthropologist Joseph Birdsell in 1938-39 and again in 1952-54 to survey Indigenous communities across the country, their goals were, for the time, just as bold. On their first expedition they drove 29,000 km across remote Australia, interviewing and photographing over the course of both expeditions more than 4,400 Aboriginal people, recording for posterity their lives and culture in forensic detail. They set up makeshift camps, or slept, as Tindale wrote in his journal, wherever they could:

While a gramophone played popular tunes of the day, Tindale worked at a desk in the back of his truck, giving every individual an identifying number which forever after linked their photo to every facet of the dizzying cache of information he solicited – lists of vocabulary and place names, records of tribal and totemic affiliations and clan boundaries, and intricate family trees stretching back two or three generations, complete with genetic approximations of how “full blooded” each branch was. The same number was recorded on the envelopes which contained the hair; some people gave more than one sample, others volunteered chest or underarm hair. Literacy and numeracy tests were carried out and numerous measurements taken – of height and body mass, but also of leg length, nose width, hair type and lip thickness, all recorded in Tindale’s confident script:

Though he counted Aboriginal elders as friends and was given a clan totem, Tindale was of his time in believing he was documenting the last days of a dying race and though no one was forced to participate, many of his investigations now seem painfully dated and intrusive; how ironic that his life’s work, including field journals, personal diaries, boxes of correspondence and scores of published papers, is now seen as an irreplaceable source of cultural rejuvenation by many Aboriginal people themselves. Since the mid-1980s, when the South Australian Museum set up its Aboriginal Family History Unit, many Indigenous people, including native title claimants and members of the Stolen Generation, have explored Tindale’s genealogical records, his thousands of photographs and even collections of children’s crayon drawings on huge sheets of butcher’s paper. “It’s often very emotional for them,” says Family and Community History consultant Ali Abdullah-Highfold. “It brings up the hurt of the past but many are also excited. People want to find out everything they can.”

The UNESCO-listed collection, the product of Tindale’s solo trips as well as the two South Australian Board for Anthropological Research expeditions with Joseph Birdsell, crowds eight towering sets of shelves in the Museum’s archives. In addition to Aboriginal people researching their own individual histories, this treasure trove has been used by artists, documentary-makers and historians. Tindale’s voluminous vocabulary lists have helped create dictionaries, basket weavers have rediscovered traditional techniques and Aboriginal elders have studied sound and film footage of ceremonies to enrich community cultural practices. “I’ve never met a collection like it,” says Fran Zilio, the Museum’s head of archives. “It’s an incredible contribution to humanity.”

First essential step: finding the living descendants of those whose hair was sampled and getting their permission for the testing to be done.

But the hair samples, until now, have remained off-limits as well as offsite. In 2005, geneticist Professor Alan Cooper arrived in Australia to establish Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. The charismatic New Zealander soon heard about the envelopes and though immediately intrigued, guessed that historical sensitivities around genetics and Aboriginal people would make studying their contents impossible. It’s taken a decade, but with stringent ethics approvals in place and the help of Aboriginal people, those hurdles seem to have been cleared. The result is a project which Cooper believes is, for Australia, “about as big as you can get in many ways.”

Using the investigative muscle of DNA analysis, the Aboriginal Heritage Project plans to use information stored in the hair to map Aboriginal genetic history, revealing ancient lineages and ancestral population structures interrupted by forced resettlement onto reserves and missions, as well as reconstructing patterns of movement across a landscape marked by severe climactic and environmental upheavals. “It’s using genetics as a tool to get at history and that’s what we are reconstructing – the history of the communities and the families and the ways in which people in different parts of the country survived and existed,” says Cooper. His three-man team will analyse 20 hair samples from 20 communities over the next three years – modest-sounding perhaps, but in reality an enormous task given the logistical challenges of the first essential step: finding the living descendants of those whose hair was sampled and getting their permission for the testing to be done.

Left Professor Alan Cooper / Right Dr Ray Tobler.

That’s why the key to the project’s success, says Cooper, will be close consultation with Aboriginal people, being facilitated by a small but committed team of Aboriginal staff at the Museum, who are organising visits to communities and will work alongside Cooper’s team once there to explain the project and answer the myriad questions people have. It’s a long-term commitment - despite limited funding, the team will return the DNA results back to each community in person, sitting down to explain each genetic story with participating families individually. “We’re not just taking what we want with a ‘thanks very much.’ It’s much more inclusive,” says ACAD geneticist Ray Tobler.

“Aboriginal people have been researched for hundreds of years – there is always somebody coming in for something.”

At the Museum, Aboriginal consultants Isabel O’Loughlin and Amy O’Donoghue spend hours on the phone making contact with communities in an effort to track down the right people. Using Tindale’s precise notes as a starting point, the pair trawl through community organisations, electoral rolls, phone records, and rely on family networks and word of mouth though names have often changed or vary in spelling, people have moved on or records are incomplete. With only enough funding to employ them part-time, it’s slow work.

Many people approached by the team in the first three communities visited haven’t known the hair samples even existed, and given the cultural potency of hair for many indigenous communities, let alone the very human link to a deceased loved one, many have found the news confronting. Some have been unanimous in not wanting any part of it, and nobody tries to change their mind, says O’Donoghue. “I can understand why some people are suspicious,” she says. “Aboriginal people have been researched for hundreds of years – there is always somebody coming in for something.” Yet after having the project explained at community information sessions, 95% of descendants approached so far have agreed to be involved – a hopeful sign, says Ray Tobler, that when a project is handled sensitively, “there isn’t the same stigma attached to genetics that there was.”

Top left - Tindale riding a camel in South Australia’s Glen Ferdinand Musgrave Range, July 1933.
Top right - Tindale photographing an Indigenous man making an axe in South Australia, 1930.
Below, left to right - Norman Tindale, Birdsell’s wife Esther and Joseph Birdsell, 1952.
The researchers were accompanied by their wives on both expeditions.

Once consent is given, the right sample is easily identified, thanks to Tindale’s indexing system, and retrieved using gloves and face masks to avoid contamination with modern DNA. Of the finger’s-width lock of hair, only about a third is needed for analysis, and to date 64 samples, from two pilot communities, at Point Pearce in South Australia and Cherbourg in Queensland, have been tested in ACAD’s purpose-built, state-of-the-art lab, housed in a converted tram barn on the edge of Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens. A further 47, from the South Australian community of Koonibba, will have minute fragments of DNA extracted in coming weeks.

For Tobler, involvement in the project offers a rare chance to combine scientific excitement with personal interest. Raised in New Zealand but with Aboriginal ancestors on his father’s side, Tobler was working on a DNA project in Vienna when he heard Alan Cooper being interviewed on a New Zealand radio station about his plans. “I thought it sounded incredible,” he says. He contacted Cooper and wound up working alongside him on an indigenous research fellowship. Like Cooper, he’s long been fascinated by the genetic questions still to be answered in Australia. “So much work is being done around the world (on evolutionary genetics) that in Australia it’s conspicuous by its absence,” he says.

Tobler’s focus now is on the hair’s mitochondrial DNA – transmitted only through the female lineage, from mother to child – found in the shaft of each strand of hair. Once the DNA is extracted, Ray Tobler can begin building a complex family tree, working out how long ago different samples shared a common ancestor by tracking the number of genetic mutations, which occur at a certain rate over time, between them. In some of the DNA from the hair samples, it seems that connection last occurred many thousands of years ago.

A peek inside the archives of South Australian Museum.

Studying the male line through the Y chromosome will be trickier. It’s found in nuclear DNA, contained in hair mainly in its roots, which weren’t a part of Tindale’s samples. Ingeniously, Cooper and Tobler are now investigating whether nuclear DNA left in skin flakes and grease on the hair strands is still intact enough to analyse. The hair has to be cleaned to remove anyone else’s DNA before testing, so it’s not an easy option. But, says Cooper, it’s possible. If any case, having only the maternal line would still be powerful, says Tobler, because “we know nothing really about Australia’s genetic history. It’s all revealing.”

Results so far, which show evidence of very old genetic clusters, have astounded Cooper. “They are suggesting a continuity on the landscape which is awe-inspiring,” he says. “I would have thought all that history, all that time, all those events would have caused people to move and mix and go walkabout – and yet what we’re seeing in the genetics backs up the idea of an attachment to country to a level which I never would have thought possible.” Tindale’s records, which for most people involved four or five data cards full of details, and the geographical spread of the expeditions throughout the country, play an invaluable support role, providing birth places and traditional lands for several generations in most families which Cooper’s team can draw on. “Without all that metadata – where someone’s mother or grandmother was from, what was her native tongue, what was her country – and given that by the time the sample was taken most of these people had been uprooted and forced into missions – without that information it would mean all you would have is a whole bunch of samples from this mission or that mission, which would tell you bugger all about the history of Australia,” says Cooper.

Cooper remains amazed by how little is known by Western science of Australia’s pre-European history - and by how little many Australians seem troubled by that gap.

Though Cooper emphasises that the genetic data won’t be precise enough for use in native title claims or to “prove” Aboriginality, the map could prove invaluable for those people, such as members of the Stolen Generation, who have lost their genetic thread through forced removals. It could also throw up mysteries of newly-discovered connections to other parts of the country. Norman Tindale’s granddaughter Karen George says her grandfather, a self-taught polymath who combined entomology, genetics, archaeology, botany, linguistics and anthropology in a 49-year career with the South Australian Museum, would have been thrilled that his life’s work had proved so illuminating. “He would be so interested,” says George, an Adelaide-based historian of her grandfather, who died in 1993. “He could always see connections everywhere and the possibilities for what he was recording.”

Linking the very personal impact for Aboriginal people of exploring their family’s story with the potential international significance is very much on Alan Cooper’s mind. While several researchers are currently looking at modern Aboriginal DNA, Cooper remains amazed by how little is known by Western science of Australia’s pre-European history - and by how little many Australians seem troubled by that gap. He hopes that with additional funding, more Aboriginal staff can be employed to widen the project’s reach, and help create a digital map of Australia which can have emerging genetic patterns – anonymized except for identifying personal codes - updated in real-time. He likes to imagine a copy of such a map hanging one day on classroom walls, part of a deeper appreciation of the continent’s long and rich story.

Standing in the Museum archives room, surrounded by stacks of boxes and piles of maps, Ali Abdullah-Highfold says many Aboriginal people would welcome that. “As one old fella said to me, at least I know now my own family lineage is that old – it’s not just rock art being dated somewhere else. That’s the legacy I can leave for my family.”

Photographs by David Solm
Images by South Australian Museum Archive

This month, SBS Explores Identity.
Watch DNA Nation, starting Sunday 22 May on SBS.
The first episode is available on SBS On Demand now.