A lock of hair, collected by a British anthropologist a century ago, has yielded the first genome of an Australian Aborigine, along with insights into the earliest migration from the ancestral human homeland somewhere in northeast Africa.
The Aboriginal genome bolsters earlier genetic evidence showing that once the Aborigines’ ancestors arrived in Australia, some 50,000 years ago, they somehow kept the whole continent to themselves without admitting any outsiders.
The Aborigines are thus direct descendants of the first modern humans to leave Africa, without any genetic mixture from other races so far as can be seen at present. Their dark skin reflects an African origin and a migration and residence in latitudes near the equator, unlike Europeans and Asians whose ancestors gained the paler skin necessary for living in northern latitudes.
“Aboriginal Australians likely have one of the oldest continuous population histories outside sub-Saharan Africa today,” say the researchers who analyzed the hair, a group led by Eske Willerslev of the Natural History Museum of Denmark.
Dr. Willerslev is an expert at working with ancient DNA, which is usually highly fragmented. Use of the ancient hair reduced the possibility of mixture with European genes and sidestepped the political difficulties of obtaining DNA from living Aborigines.
The "political difficulties" boil down to the fear that current Australian Aborigines aren't closely related to the people who left archaeological traces in Australia, as long as 44,000 years ago, but are instead related to dingo dog-owning Asians or Polynesians who would have shown up a few thousand years ago. I'm not exactly sure why that would be politically bad for Aborigines, but Australian history is highly emotional, kind of like academic politics, perhaps because so little happened in the history of Australia. (A few years ago, a friend sent me an excellent history of Australia, but when I got done reading it, the only name I could remember is Sir Don Bradfordman, the great cricket player.)
But ironically, this end run around Aboriginal sensitivities appears to have confirmed their fondest hopes about their vastly ancient pedigree. (I very seldom take an independent stand on specific questions of what happened tens of thousands of years in the past, because, well, what do I know?)
By way of comparison, here are pictures, also from Ahnenkult, of the Greenland Eskimo descendants of Matthew Henson, the black sharecropper who was the right hand man of polar explorer Robert Peary. The half black / half Eskimo son looks like a comedian on BET, while the 1/4 black grandson doesn't look all that black but the 1/8th black great-grandson does. He looks like the actor in a 1990s episode of Arliss who played a part-black part-Eskimo tennis prodigy.