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Hair samples reveal Aboriginal Australians’ 50,000 year history

Jill Pengelley, March 9, 2017 7:00PM The Advertiser

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SCIENTIFIC testing on strands of hair has confirmed indigenous* Australians have been on our continent for 50,000 years.

Scientists at the University of Adelaide in South Australia studied the DNA* in 111 hair samples and the results prove the long connection our indigenous population has with Australia.

The study has been decades in the making with some locks* of hair sourced from samples taken as far back as 1928. Scientists travelled to some of Australia’s most remote regions, even travelling by camel, to gather hair samples now able to be tested.

Researchers with a group of Aboriginal Australians in 1939. Source: supplied media_cameraResearchers with a group of Aboriginal Australians in 1939. Source: supplied

The findings, published in Nature journal, found that modern Aboriginal Australians are descended from a population that arrived 50,000 years ago, at a time when Australia’s land mass was still connected to New Guinea.

Professor Alan Cooper of the Ancient DNA Centre said the study showed that after they arrived, Aboriginal populations spread down the east and west coasts of Australia before meeting up somewhere in South Australia.

“We’re hoping this project leads to a rewriting of Australia’s history texts to include detailed Aboriginal history and what it means to have been on their land for 50,000 years — that’s around 10 times as long as all of the European history we’re commonly taught,” he said.

“This is unlike people anywhere else in the world and provides compelling support for the remarkable Aboriginal cultural connection to country.”

Kaurna elder* Lewis O’Brien participated* in the study and donated a hair sample.

“Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time,” he said.

“But it is important to have science show that to the rest of the world.”

The research has resulted in the first detailed genetic* map of Aboriginal Australia before the arrival of Europeans.

Mr O’Brien’s hair sample is now at the SA Museum in Adelaide alongside a collection of 6000 photographs of Aboriginal Australians taken on many scientific expeditions*.

From 1928 until the 1970s two scientists Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell made extensive records of indigenous communities, including taking hair samples.

Map showing the locations some expeditions visited from 1921 to 1965. Source: supplied media_cameraMap showing the locations some expeditions visited from 1921 to 1965. Source: supplied

Museum director Brian Oldman said the collection had a lot to offer.

“They include detailed information about the birthplaces, family history and family trees, film, audio and written records — allowing a wide range of approaches to be used by this (current) project to reconstruct history,” Mr Oldman said.

Tindale and Birdsell snipped locks of hair and placed them in brown paper bags — each marked with an identifying number. The pair were forward thinkers.

At the time of the hair collection the science was not yet at a point where they could analyse the samples like scientists can now.

Joseph Birdsell and his wife Bee collecting data. The Aboriginal woman is not identified. Image: supplied media_cameraJoseph Birdsell and his wife Bee collecting data. The Aboriginal woman is not identified. Image: supplied

They also took physical measurements, made film and sound recordings, asked participants to do crayon drawings and recorded their accounts of their family trees.

All of this information is being used as part of the Aboriginal Heritage Project, which will help people with Aboriginal heritage trace their ancestry*.

Aboriginal sisters Sharon and Karrieanne Weston wrapped in the Aboriginal flag. Source: supplied media_cameraAboriginal sisters Sharon and Karrieanne Weston wrapped in the Aboriginal flag. Source: supplied

What is DNA?

Everyone is made of trillions of tiny cells that form our bones, hair, skin and everything else. But since all of those different parts of us are made up of tiny cells doing their jobs they need a boss to tell them what to do.

That’s where the molecule called DNA comes in. It works as the manual that tells our cells what to do. This is why people from the same place or family might have similar features, colouring or hair.

GLOSSARY

indigenous: originating from a particular place

DNA: carrier of genetic information

locks: bits of hair

elder: senior figure

participated: took part in

genetic: related to genes

expeditions: trips

ancestry: where someone comes from

LISTEN TO TODAY’S STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES

Activity 1.

After reading the story, list all of the things that Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell collected.

Next to each item, write down how you think that item can help us understand the history of Aboriginal people.

Time: Allow 25 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: The Humanities: History, Critical and Creative Thinking

Extension:

Mungo National Park in New South Wales has some of the oldest human remains ever found and sets of footprints that are over 20,000 years old.

Find out more about Mungo and its amazing discoveries.

Write an information report about Mungo National Park.

The Mungo National Park website can be located at:

http://www.visitmungo.com.au

Time: Allow 60 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: The Humanities: History

Activity 2.

Write sentences explaining why this is such an important discovery for all Australians.

Create a mind map to get started, then use the information in your map in your sentences.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: The Humanities: Civics and Citizenship , Critical and Creative Thinking

Extension:

In the story, Professor Alan Cooper talks about the ‘Aboriginal cultural connection to country.’

Write a story about why country is important to Aboriginal people. You could include information about your local area.

Time: Allow 30 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: English, Civics and Citizenship

VCOP ACTIVITY

(Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers, Punctuation)

Put Said to Bed

Write as many different words for said that you can think of. Look at the article and circle all the times the word said is used. Can you Up-Level it by replacing the word said with one of the words from your list?

(Approx. 10 minutes)

Curriculum links: English, Big Write, VCOP

Activity provided by Andrell Education www.andrelleducation.com.au

EXTRA RESOURCES

SEVEN ‘EARTHS’ FOUND IN SPACE

LOST CIVILISATION WAS RULED BY WOMEN

COMEDIANS STAND UP TO HELP STRUGGLING NUNAWADING FOOTY CLUB

WHEN WILL AUSTRALIA’S HEATWAVE END?

Extra Reading in history