ABOVE: Willandra Elders visiting the ancient DNA laboratory

The bones of hundreds, or even possibly thousands, of indigenous Australians remain in museums worldwide, shipped off after European colonization. Descendants who want these remains returned often face difficulty in proving their origins. DNA could help identify the communities to which they belong, researchers reported yesterday (December 19) in Science Advances.

Mining ancient DNA for links to living people can be tricky—DNA degrades over time and colonialism may have disrupted family ties when indigenous peoples were removed from their land, making it more difficult to know where to look for descendants, Science reports. In addition, many culturally indigenous people have large amounts of DNA from European ancestors.  

Scientists from Griffith University in Australia analyzed genetic material from the remains of 27 Aboriginal people. Because these remains had all been repatriated previously or unearthed directly, their...

The team was able to match these 10 nuclear genomes to communities that nowadays live on the same land from which the remains came, showing that genetics could be useful for repatriation cases in Australia. The connections found through mitochondrial DNA didn’t prove as clear, only giving a correct match in 60 percent of the cases. 

The researchers envision collecting genomes from living Aboriginal people to form a database against which they could screen genetic material from remains, Science reports. This could allow the repatriation of remains even when identifying information has been lost.

Repatriation of sacred objects and human remains has become Australian government policy. The first set of remains was repatriated in 1976 and a total of 2,500 have since been returned, Nature reports.

While using DNA for repatriation would likely be desired by indigenous peoples worldwide, it’s unclear how well searching for ancestral links in DNA would work in other places. For instance, genetic ties between the different indigenous groups of Polynesia are so close it might be difficult to match an ancestor to one community, Science reports.

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