SCIENCE AND RESEARCH has an important role to play in the fundamental debate Australians are now having about the rights of this country’s First Peoples and their recognition. This manifests in many ways, but one example powerfully illustrates it. A widespread concern for many Indigenous communities centres on difficulties regarding the repatriation of ancient remains and the connections with kin for members of the stolen generations. Genomic science can bring knowledge and know-how to help address these complex issues, by developing new methods and working in partnership with Indigenous communities and individuals. This research has resulted in new methods to improve recovery of DNA from ancient remains and improved sequencing of complete genomes of living people. This produces new knowledge and, when done collaboratively, results in ownership of the research and its findings by Indigenous people. Ten years after Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, this research is timely and may help to repair some of the damages of the past.
Aboriginal Australians occupy a unique place in human history worldwide and their biological ancestry is one of the most important in the history of human origins. Although genetic studies have revealed a great deal about human origins in many other parts of the world, until recently relatively little was formally known about Aboriginal Australians. This mainstream neglect is for two general reasons. First, early ancient DNA studies focused on attempts to recover genomic sequences from remains locked in permafrost conditions, or at least from mild temperate environments. This is because degradation of DNA is reduced in low temperatures, and there was widespread belief that DNA would not have survived in the hot environments characteristic of much of Australia. Second, in relation to contemporary DNA research, there have been valid concerns among many of Australia’s First People as some researchers acted unethically in DNA-based research with the Indigenous people, providing little consultation or control over who would use the samples, or clarity about the purpose of the research. Scientists need to work in a robust partnership with Indigenous communities to repair this relationship.
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