“We know that we were here forever, but Western science is slowly catching up,” says a Facebook post from Indigenous Australian rights organisation Sovereign Union, led by activist and Euahlayi leader Ghillar Michael Anderson.
In fact, their relationship to the land stretches back over 50,000 years, according to new scientific research published in the journal Nature. Led by Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge, in collaboration with a host of Indigenous elders, the research team sequenced the genome of 83 Aboriginal Australians (from groups covering 90 percent of Australia’s land mass) and 25 Highland Papuans.
Significantly, the results also show that Indigenous ancestors migrated from Africa 72,000 years ago as part of a “single migration” of the world’s first people.
Aboriginal and Papuan ancestors then split from the single migrating group more than 58,000 years ago, reaching the supercontinent of Sahul (modern day Australia, Tasmania and Papua New Guinea) around 50,000 years ago.
The findings debunk a number of previous theories. They include the idea (often used to delegitimise First Nations sovereignty) that Indigenous Australians may not be the first group to occupy Australia; that modern day humans spread from Africa over multiple migrations; and that the Aboriginal people’s connection to the land wasn’t as old as it’s now known to be.
The study also shows significant diversity in the genetic makeup of Indigenous nations between the east and west of the continent.
“There is greater genetic diversity in Aboriginal people living in the east and west of Australia then there is between people living in Siberia and the Americas,” says Westaway.
“That great genetic diversity in Aboriginal populations reflectsthe huge amount of time they have occupied the continent,” says co-author and senior research fellow Dr. Michael Westaway.
Co-author and Dauwa Kau’bvai woman Colleen Wall told ABCshe was pleased that both women and leaders of Aboriginal nations were players in the study, and that science seemingly verifies the multitude of Songlines, or sacred creation stories,that constitute the religious beliefs of Australia’s First Nations.
“As a society we already believe that we are the oldest race onEarth, and from my point of view this research goes some way towards proving that,” said Wall.
The study is one of three major “human origins” papers published in Nature this week, with a second study showing that the advent of human behaviours — as shown through rock art and tools — seems unaccompanied by any significant genetic mutations.
As Swapan Mallick of Harvard Medical School put it, “your genome contains the history of every ancestor you ever had.”
In an accompanying commentary on the three studies, Joshua M. Akey of University of Washington said, “I think all three studies are basically saying the same thing. We know there were multiple dispersals out of Africa, but we can trace our ancestry back to a single one.”
Aubrey Lynch, an Indigenous Wangai elder involved in the study, said “this study confirms our beliefs that we have ancient connections to our lands and have been here far longer than anyone else.”