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A hair's breadth: mapping Aboriginal genetic history

The South Australian Museum holds thousands of hair - and to a lesser extent, blood - samples collected from Aboriginal people during anthropological surveys last century.

Many people from whom hair was collected were confined on missions and reserves under the control of the state.

Every detail was minutely recorded in the field by the survey teams including the results of exhaustive anthropometric tests. Detailed sociological data was also gathered such as oral genealogies, dreaming stories and songlines. Photographs were also taken.

In some cases, hair was collected.

Although tiny, the almost 7000 individual ancestral hair samples - secreted in envelopes almost 80 years ago - do retain some trace quantities of genetic material.

A DNA testing project is underway to scientifically prove what Aboriginal people already know - that we survived, maintaining our longevity on the driest continent on earth through almost cataclysmic shifts in climate.

The scientists say the idea is to create an ancestral map of internal migration - did our ancestors range over a small geographical area or did they travel great distances?

What are the risks and benefits of knowing your genetic history?

What do we compromise by surrendering the DNA of our ancestors?

What ownership do we have of the genetic material?

Is it another form of colonialism where DNA is appropriated, mapped and described?

We hear from the lead researcher Professor Alan Cooper from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, as well as the Kaurna elder who had hair taken as a child at the Point Pearce mission in South Australia in the 1930s.

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