Scientists have shown their investigations into ancient DNA can enable the return of Aboriginal remains to the lands from which they came.

Researchers from Griffith University’s ancient DNA and genomics research group in the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution (ARCHE) collaborated with Aboriginal Elders and communities across Queensland and New South Wales, as well as the Queensland Museum andinternational researchers, to analyse DNA extracted from ancient remains recovered from several regions.

The remains had been either excavated from their burial by community request to save them, or were well documented repatriations from the Queensland Museum. The research wasconducted in partnership with indigenouspeople from around the country-from the Willandra Lakes region in NSWto Cape York communities in north QLD.

Credit: Renee Chapman

Led by Griffith’s Professor David Lambert, with DrJoanne Wright and Dr SallyWasefplaying leading roles in the research, the team worked closely with collaborators Prof EskeWillerslev and Prof Martin Sikora from the University of Cambridge and the University of Copenhagento conduct the study.

The world-first research, published in Science Advances, has determined the origin of Aboriginal remains using nuclear DNA-based methods to enable their ‘return to Country’ or repatriation.

To achieve this important result, theteamconstructed an Australia-wide genomic map using100completenuclear DNA sequences from Aboriginal Australiansliving atmany locations across Australia.By comparing the ancient genomic sequences to these modern ones, they were able toaccurately identify theclosest relative of thoseancientpeople and therefor to identify theiroriginalPlace and Country.

“Our repatriation research came about through collaborations with a number of Aboriginal Australian Elders and communities,”DrWright said.

“I worked closely in particular withThaynakwithElderTapijWales fromWeipa— who sadly passed away before the research was complete —on remains that had been discovered eroding from the sand dunes atDuyfkenPoint.

“He told me wanted to know how this ancient lady was related to hisPeople, andasked if the DNA of the contemporary population ofWeipacould be compared with any ancient DNA that had been recovered.”

Over the course of nearly six years, the ARCHE team extracted DNA from 27 ancient pre-European settlement remains of known provenance from sites in Queensland (Weipa, Cairns, Mapoon) and NSW (Bourke,WillandraLakes, Barham).

Nuclear DNA (derived from both parents) yielded the most accurate results, working in 100% of cases and to precise locations.

Theresearch identified 10 sets of ancient Aboriginal Australian remains and, using the Australia-wide genomic map of people living today, showed that theseancient nuclear genomescould be used toaccuratelyidentifyof the origins of remains.Statistical analyses of these nuclear DNA sequences (inherited from both the mother and father) showed that the closest relatives of each of these ancient people were people living today in the same region of Australia.

Importantly,29 ancientmitochondrial DNA sequences(inherited only from the mother) wereshown to be unreliable and performed poorly in this regard.For 18of theseancientAboriginal Australian individuals (62.1%), the closest contemporarymatch was an individual from the same geographic region (within235 km).

But forthe remaining 11 ancient individuals (37.9%), the results wereeither inconclusive due to a lack of contemporary matches or becausesome mitochondrial haplotypes were geographically widespread.

The teamalsoshowed thatifmitochondrialDNAsequencesonly wereused in repatriationefforts in the Australian context, would result in a significant percentage(~7%) of remains being returned to the wrong Indigenouscommunity.Hence, onlycomplete nucleargenealogical data are able to identify the place and country of ancient remains.

“Nuclear DNA used as a tool for repatriation is very effective and if applied to unprovenanced ancestral remains will greatly assist with their repatriation,” Prof Lambert said.

“Ancient DNA from Australia where you’re battling heat, humidity and tropical elements can be extremely difficult to recover.

“This is our ‘positive control’ experiment — we know where these remains came from, so if we find the closest living relative is from the area where the bones came from, then we know that the method works properly.”

Credit: Renee Chapman

The ARCHE team said the method has the potential to help return ancient remains housed inmuseums back to theircommunities, butbelieve whether or not to use the method is a decision that needs to be made by Aboriginal Australians.

“Now that we’ve shown that this could be used, should it be used?”DrWright said.

“We’ve shown that it can be, but it’s not our decision to make.”

Prof Lambert argues that studies of isotope and craniometric data are not appropriate for such repatriation studies because they are not able to reconstruct genealogies and therefore cannot identify the Place and Country of ancient people.

The team is grateful to LarryWoosupand members ofourAboriginal Advisory Committee.The work wassupported bygrants from theAustralian ResearchCouncil (DP140101405, DP110102635, LP120200144, LP140100387, and LP130100748)to Professor Lambert.