DNA research could enable repatriation of ancient Aboriginal remains

Credit: Renee Chapman

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

Researchers from Griffith University’s 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, 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.   

Credit: Renee Chapman

Professor David LambertDr Joanne Wright and Dr Sally Wasef form part of the team behind the new world-first research published in Science Advances, that has determined the origin of Aboriginal remains using nuclear DNA-based methods to enable their ‘return to Country’ or repatriation.  

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

“I worked closely in particular with Thaynakwith Elder Tapij Wales from Weipa – who sadly passed away before the research was complete – on remains that had been discovered eroding from the sand dunes at Duyfken Point.   

“He told me wanted to know how this ancient lady was related to his People, and asked if the DNA of the contemporary population of Weipa could 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, Willandra Lakes, Barham).   

The team analysed mitochondrial DNA (maternally inherited) and found the origin for 62.1% of ancient Aboriginal remains included in the research could be determined. But the remaining 37.9% yielded results that were inconclusive due to a lack of contemporary matches or the mitochondrial haplotypes being geographically widespread.  

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

“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 in museums back to their communities, but believe 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?” Dr Wright said.   

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

The work was led by the Griffith researchers and included researchers from Australia, Belgium, Switzerland and Copenhagen with guidance from Aboriginal Australian Elders and communities.