Norman Tindale, pictured here in 1927 with members of a local Aboriginal group, led a mission to gather precise ethnographic and geographic data from many different Aboriginal groups. He also gathered hair from the people he interviewed, which provided DNA samples for earlier studies. The group here is at Rockshelter at Bathurst Head (Thartali) in eastern Cape York Peninsula.

Enlarge / Norman Tindale, pictured here in 1927 with members of a local Aboriginal group, led a mission to gather precise ethnographic and geographic data from many different Aboriginal groups. He also gathered hair from the people he interviewed, which provided DNA samples for earlier studies. The group here is at Rockshelter at Bathurst Head (Thartali) in eastern Cape York Peninsula. (credit: Photo by Herbert Hale, via South Australian Museum Archives Norman Tindale Collection)

Since they arrived in Australia in 1788, Europeans have gathered the remains of Aboriginal Australians for museum and research collections, digging up graves ranging from relatively recent in age to 1500 years old. Aboriginal Australian communities have lobbied long and hard for the return of their ancestors, and many Australian museums have in recent years made a concerted effort to repatriate Aboriginal Australian remains.

Before the dead can return home, the living must figure out where “home” originally was. Most of the remains unearthed earlier in Australia’s colonial history arrived in museum collections with no record of where they came from or which group they once belonged to. A new study suggests that DNA sequencing may be able to help the bones of the Aboriginal Australian dead speak for themselves.

Evolutionary biologist Joanne Wright of Griffith University and her colleagues sequenced DNA from 10 Aboriginal Australians who lived before European contact, some as long as 1,540 years ago. While these were among the rare cases where museum curators know the remains’ origin, the researchers wanted to know whether they could find the closest living relatives of these ancient people. Consistently, the ancient genomes most closely matched those of Aboriginal people now living in the same region where the ancient remains had once been buried. In other words, DNA linked the ancient remains to modern communities that still live in the same place, sometimes over a thousand years later. And that could help with efforts to repatriate Aboriginal Australian remains that museums haven’t been able to trace.

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