DNA Can Help Return Indigenous Remains to Ancestral Sites

“We propose that our approach can be used now and will be used routinely in the future to return remains to their rightful kin.”

Dec 19 2018, 7:00pm

Willandra Lakes Region, a World Heritage Site occupied by Indigenous groups 40,000 years ago. Image: Sherene Lambert

Breakthroughs in sequencing ancient human DNA can help heal painful historical wrongs, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances.

European colonization of the world has had disastrous consequences for Indigenous populations, ranging from cultural dispossession to outright genocide. For Australian Aboriginal peoples, the theft of ancestral human remains from tribal sites, a practice that began soon after British colonists arrived in Australia in 1788, is an enduring reminder of these hardships.

Thousands of Indigenous remains were removed by scientists and collectors and dispatched to museums and institutions all over the world. Little regard was given to the widespread Aboriginal belief that the spirits of their ancestors would not find peace if taken from their resting places.

Since the geographic origins and tribal affiliations of the specimens were rarely noted when they were removed, it’s a challenge to accurately return them even after the government made that goal a priority with initiatives like Australia’s Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation.

New research from a team of scientists led by Joanne Wright, a PhD candidate at the Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution at Griffith University, suggests that genomics could be a powerful tool to help resolve this problem.

In collaboration with local Indigenous communities, according to the paper, Wright and her colleagues sequenced DNA from the remains of 27 Indigenous Australians who lived between 95 and 1,540 years ago. The specimens had already been accurately repatriated to their ancestral communities across Australia, which allowed the team to compare the ancient DNA with 100 genomes of modern descendents living in the same regions.

The results revealed matches between the ancient and modern DNA samples, validating the idea that DNA sequencing could shed light on on the repatriation of remains with unknown origins.

“We propose that our approach can be used now and will be used routinely in the future to return remains to their rightful kin,” Wright’s team wrote in the paper.

Read More: A Hybrid of Humanity's Closest Relatives Has Been Identified From 50,000-Year-Old Bone

The researchers emphasized that DNA should not be the only tool for tracing remains back to their ancestral homelands. In particular, they discovered that relying on mitochondrial DNA, which only preserves information about maternal lineage, could result in about 7 percent of remains getting returned to the wrong communities. Nuclear DNA—which is preserved in the cellular nucleus and provides genetic information about all ancestors—is much more reliable. But the team still recommended pairing it with other established methods of repatriation.

“A similar approach could be used to facilitate the repatriation of Indigenous remains in other countries with a known ancient population history and a contemporary database,” Wright’s team said. “This would represent a major scientific and social advance.”

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