Science has officially proven what most Australian Aboriginal people have always known — that their ties to country are age-old, stretching back a massive 50,000 years.
Now scientists are trying to establish how many early Australians were in the first group of explorers to arrive from land connected to Papua New Guinea and settle the continent in one, quick sweep down the east and west coasts.
“What we could say is it was definitely deliberate – this is not a fishing trip gone wrong,” Professor Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide told NIT.
“It was very much a planned colonisation by a large number of people, but we are working on that exact question now.”
A study released today by researchers at the University of Adelaide, South Australian Museum, The University of New South Wales and the Australian National University involved the help and permission of the descendants of more than 100 Aboriginal people who gave DNA hair samples between the 1920s and 1970s.
By examining the DNA, the researchers were able to tell that far from being nomadic, the different groups stayed in specific areas for tens of thousands of year, weathering the changes in the world around them.
“The thing is, while many of the traditional stories suggest Aboriginal people have been here forever, they were less precise about the, in many cases, absolute ownership of country permanently through that period of time,” Professor Cooper said.
“There was kind of allowance for the fact that that may have evolved or moved through space or time in some cases, whereas in fact we are confirming the most literal interpretations of those stories.
“People have been nomadic, but they have been sedentary and that’s a very interesting contradiction of terms. Nomadic – they are constantly moving around, but they are sedentary in terms of staying on country.
“The range will be bigger than their country and that would overlap into neighbouring groups where you would have marriage or connections that allowed you to move into those areas. Probably language connections. But you then had your core country.
“Given the longevity of the time, 50,000 years, to me it makes a lot of sense that being on country is such an important part of Aboriginal culture and wellbeing because, for a start, it’s 50,000 years’ worth of tradition, but more importantly during that period of time there have been such massive environmental changes.
“During the last glaciation, the last very cold period around 20,000 years ago, Australia was a very inhospitable place. It becomes incredibly dry, way drier than it is now, and there are similar changes in the last 10,000 years.
“There’s El Nino, monsoons started penetrating, so the environment has changed enormously during this period of time. It would be only through understanding and knowing and working with your country so well that you are able to survive these events.”
Professor Cooper said the study’s findings have implications for Australia today in terms of the way we understand our history.
“I think while traditional knowledge has it that Aboriginal people have been on the land forever, that is perhaps still not widely understood or appreciated or even accepted by the non-Aboriginal populations,” he said.
“Certainly demonstrating through the DNA that that does seem to be the case, that there is incredibly long permanence on particular pieces of country, is pretty important right off the bat, politically and socially because claims, not necessarily land claims, but attempts to try and devalue Aboriginal ownership suddenly start becoming a lot more difficult.”
Professor Cooper said the study showed after arriving in Australia, the early explorers moved quickly, settling the east and west coasts first and eventually meeting in South Australia.
He said they had arrived in Australia only about 5000 years after early humans left Africa and were obviously skilled explorers.
“The actual pattern of how it happened, the movement and the speed, is important because we didn’t know how that worked,” he said.
“Obviously there is traditional knowledge, but very little absolute detail; certainly very little scientific explanation. Anything we can start doing to create that history of Australia is going to be very, very important for education, for Aboriginal kids in terms of motivating them to start taking more interest, if they haven’t been, in traditional knowledge, elders’ information.
“Overall, one of the key things we set out to do was to try and prove the knowledge within communities about their own histories, family relationships and about past trading routes, ceremonies, marriages.
“All the kinds of processes that were taking place before European times, about which now there are only shadows of information left in many cases.”
The study, published in the journal Nature, said reconstructing the genetic history of Aboriginal Australians had been complicated by past government policies of population relocation and child removal.
Consent was obtained from 111 hair donors or their families across three Aboriginal communities — Point Pearce in South Australia, Cherbourg in Queensland, and Koonibba in South Australia.
The study is titled ‘Aboriginal mitogenomes reveal 50,000 years of regionalism in Australia’.
Professor Alan Cooper’s is Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide.
By Wendy Caccetta