Skeletal homecomings: the proof is in the ancient DNA
The remains of Aboriginal Australians, and indigenous groups the world over, could finally be on their way home
Human remains, exhibited in museums as curiosities, could finally make their way to their rightful resting places after scientists in Australia dug deep into the ancient DNA.
This comes after several decades in which the country’s Aboriginal communities have fought hard to have ancestral remains brought home – most of which were unethically procured in the 1800s when colonialism was at its peak.
According to The New York Times, “thousands of Aboriginal Australians were the victims of a terrible trade in the name of science” as anatomists “opened their graves and stole their skeletons”. Also, in the wake of massacres of Aboriginal Australians, police officers would sell body parts to museums.
Now, a new study at Griffiths University in Queensland – and published in Science Advances – has shown how genomic analyses can reveal the geographic origins of the remains, thus opening up the path to restitution.
According to the researchers, the study could have major implications not just for Aboriginal Australians but indigenous groups the world over. For many such communities this highlights a belief that ancestors’ spirits cannot rest until they are returned to their ancestral lands.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science released a statement which said that in Australia, “unfortunately, in most cases, the geographic origin, tribal affiliation, or language group of many of these remains, respectively, are unknown, thus preventing repatriation”.
While the idea of genomic analyses for this purpose is not new, “few genomic studies to date have attempted to recover ancient Aboriginal Australian DNA specifically, and none of them have been able to obtain and sequence nuclear DNA from this region, where the climate is harsh”.
Scientist Joanne Wright and her team “obtained and sequenced 10 nuclear genomes and 27 mitochondrial DNA genomes from pre-European Australian samples of known provenance”.
They then compared these to to the “nuclear genomes of 100 modern Aboriginal Australians also of known provenance”. Their analysis revealed that with almost all of the ancient nuclear genomes, the most closely related contemporary genome was from people living today in the same geographic region.
Bones of contention
Australia is not the only country grappling with the bony fallout of past atrocities. In 2018, the University of Cape Town discovered that 11 skeletons in its Faculty of Health Sciences skeletal collection had been unethically procured. Since then the university has been working with the community of Sutherland in the Northern Cape to return the skeletal remains of nine people. These are believed to have been Khoisan people captured and forced to become farm labourers in the 1800s.
In the US, too, indigenous communities are seeing restorative justice taking place in the form of skeletal remains being returned. In September 2017, the remains of 24 native Alaskans were restituted to their communities by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This came nine decades after an anthropologist from that museum had excavated the remains for scientific purposes in 1931.