During the European colonization of Australia, collectors looted Aboriginal gravesites and sold the pilfered remains to museums and scientific researchers. In recent years, Aboriginal Australians have been pushing to get these remains back, but the path to repatriation is not always simple. It is vital to ensure that the remains are restored to the right community; many Aboriginal Australians believe that their ancestors’ spirits can only rest when their bodies are returned to the location where they were born and lived. But oftentimes, institutions don’t have any information about the skeletons’ original burial place amid the vast Australian landscape.
As Carl Zimmer reports for the New York Times, a new study published in the journal Science Advances suggests that genetic analysis may be the answer to this long-standing problem. A team of researchers, in collaboration with Aboriginal groups, have shown that it is possible to use DNA-based methods to determine the origins of ancient Aboriginal remains.
The study was sparked by the 2013 discovery of 3,400-year-old bones on land inhabited by the Thaynakwith people. Members of the community asked geneticists to take a closer look at the remains, hoping to determine if the bones belonged to one of their ancestors. Efforts to extract DNA from the skeleton ultimately failed; its genetic material had been destroyed by the harsh Australian climate. But Tapij Wales, a Thaynakwith elder and co-author of the new study, asked if it would be possible to try the process on other remains held in museum collections. Soon, other indigenous communities began making similar requests.
So, with the consent of their Aboriginal partners, the researchers behind the new study analyzed genetic samples from the remains of 27 Aboriginal individuals who lived before European colonization. The oldest remains dated back 1,540 years ago.
Importantly, all of the remains were either excavated from Aboriginal lands or had been previously been repatriated, so the team knew their original place of burial. “These ancient genomic sequences, of known origin, were used as proxies for unprovenanced remains,” the researchers explain. They also obtained saliva samples from 100 living Aboriginal Australians.
Prior to the new study, DNA had been successfully retrieved from only one individual from Australia’s pre-colonization period, an ancient man from the Willandra Lakes region. This time around, the researchers were able to sequence the mitogenomes, or DNA of a cell’s mitochondrion, of all 27 remains. They also sequenced the nuclear genomes of 10 individuals.
When it came to matching this data to the DNA of living Aboriginal Australians, the mitogenomes were not particularly reliable. The researchers were able to connect only 62 percent of remains to their places of origin using mitochondrial DNA, leading them to conclude that they cannot recommend this method for repatriation. The nuclear DNA, however, proved to be a far more successful tool. It worked 100 percent of the time, allowing researchers to match ancient remains to precise locations.
In each case, “DNA analyses successfully identified the closest match to a contemporary individual from the same geographic area from which the ancient remains had originated,” Joanne Wright, a human evolutionary biologist at Australia’s Griffith University and lead author of the study, tells Discover’s Roni Dengler.
Moving forward, the researchers say, it is important to establish standards and protocols for using DNA in the repatriation process. But for now, the study offers hope that remains once deemed impossible to repatriate can be returned to their ancestral land.
“Our old people’s spirits won’t rest until they’re back on their own country,” Gudju Gudju Fourmile, an elder of the Yidniji and Gimuy Walubara and a co-author of the study, tells Zimmer of the Times.
“My interest,” he adds, “is in connecting with our old people who have been taken away.”