A 100-year-old lock of hair from a West Australian Aboriginal man has led to a discovery that Aboriginal Australians are directly descended from the first people to leave Africa more than 70,000 years ago.
The find re-interprets world history by showing that the ancestors of modern Australian Aboriginal people reached Asia at least 24,000 years before other human migrations that produced present-day Europeans and Asians.
A team of international researchers, including Dr Joe Dortch from The University of Western Australia and two researchers from Murdoch University, used the century-old hair sample to piece together the human genome in results published today in the international journal Science.
Dr Dortch said archaeological evidence already showed that modern humans first reached Australia about 50,000 years ago but this new study re-writes the story of how they got here.
The lock of hair was donated by an Aboriginal man from the Goldfields to a British anthropologist in the early 20th century and used by the research team to explore the genetics of early Australians and gain insights into how humans first spread across the globe.
The genome, which was shown to have no genetic input from more recent Australian arrivals, revealed that Aboriginal ancestors split from the first modern human populations to leave Africa, between 64,000 and 75,000 years ago.
The study, endorsed by the Goldfields Land and Sea Council (representing traditional owners in WA's Goldfields region) shows that Aboriginal Australians have the longest association with land on which they live today.
"The collaboration with traditional owners produced a great result," Dr Dortch said. "It shows that Aboriginal people have been here for an immense period and will help focus archaeological research into the earliest evidence for people in Australia - we're very much looking forward to future collaborations."
The study was headed by Professor Eske Willerslev, from the University of Copenhagen, who said: "While the ancestors of Europeans and Asians sat somewhere in Africa or the Middle East - yet to explore their world further - Aboriginal Australians were the first modern humans to traverse unknown territory in Asia and finally cross the sea into Australia. It was a truly amazing journey that must have demanded exceptional survival skills and bravery."
Photograph: Mikal Schlosser − Image © Science/AAAS