The Australian Aborigines deserve high praise as the world’s greatest explorers, having been the first human beings to venture beyond Africa and then made their way along the southern edge of Asia all the way to Australia – or at any rate an article in the journal Science this week makes an impressive case for this striking hypothesis.
If so, the ancestors of the Aborigines were about 37,000 years ahead of any other human emigrants from the African home continent – somewhere between 62,000 and 75,000 years ago. Hitherto, the prevailing theory has been that one emigrant group were the ancestors of all Eurasian peoples, which also includes all the aboriginal peoples of the Americas – in other words all non-Africans. The only close relatives of the Australian Aborigines, according to the study, are a people called the Aeta in the Philippines and the natives of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea.
All this was inferred from a lock of hair from an Aborigine who lived in the early 20th century in a quite remote part of Australia, the Goldfields-Esperance region in the southeast of Western Australia – that is, the original owner of the hair that yielded a genome was very unlikely to have partly non-Australian (that is, European) ancestry. Political correctness was complied with; the man’s relatives and a regional Aborigine organization, the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, granted their approval; indeed the council expressed its excitement.
The lead among the 58 authors is Eske Willerslev of the Natural History Museum of Denmark; also among them is Michael Richards, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia.
It is hard to say which is more imaginatively stirring: the myth of the origin of the Aborigines in two lizard-men in the Western Desert of Australia, to which some adhere, or the long journey from Africa along the Asian seacoast to their present home.