Scientific findings have confirmed what Aboriginals have always believed: their ancestors were the first people to settle in Australia.
In the 1920s and 1970s, the University of Adelaide collected hair samples from 5,000 indigenous Australians—with permission, of course. In more recent years, biologist Alan Cooper and his colleagues were able to collect mitochondrial DNA from 111 hair samples. The researchers recently published their findings on the genetic history of indigenous Australians.
Mitochondrial DNA is one of the best ways to trace very long genetic histories. It's a reliable source of information because it basically stays the same throughout the generations.
The first (and only) group of Aboriginal ancestors to migrate to the continent arrived 50,000 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA analysis has proven that Aboriginals can trace their descent to a common ancestor. This common ancestor is a woman that lived 43,000 to 47,000 years ago.
Aboriginals have always believed that their deeply spiritual ties to their land go far back in their history. Now, there is hard scientific evidence to back them up. In fact, their ties to Australia may go back even further in time than they thought.
The first people that settled in Australia eventually split into two groups, with one heading east and other heading west. These groups broke down into smaller communities that stayed in the same locations for tens of thousands of years. These communities became isolated from one another, and, interestingly, developed distinct cultures. Each community had a different language, a different set of cultural practices, and even distinct physical features.
Because of these distinctions, scientists previously thought that different groups colonized Australia at different times. The genetic data the researchers obtained, however, proved that this was not the case. Though the communities were very different from each other, the differences were due in part to mutations in mitochondrial DNA. These mutations can bring about distinctions in different groups that share a common ancestor. The groups are then considered to be “haplogroups”, whose members possess the same mutation in their mitochondrial DNA.
This information already makes ancient Aboriginal ancestors quite remarkable. However, there's more. These groups survived the Ice Age, which devastated other populations 21,000 years ago. They also survived a tropical warming event 6,000 to 9,000 years ago, and El Niño 2,000 to 4,000 years ago. The researchers think that the groups survived intense climate events without having to move very far from their settlements.
Research also showed that the communities met at some point before European colonization. Remarkably, it seems that these communities interacted peacefully despite being very distinct. Evidence of genetic diversity showed that no one group conquered another.
These findings make quite an impact on Australia's indigenous populations, who have faced racism and oppression throughout the country's history. “Aboriginal people have always known that we have been on our land since the start of our time,” stated Lewis O'Brien. O'Brien is an elder of Australia's Kaurna people and one of the hair donors for the study. “[I]t is important to have science show that to the rest of the world.”
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