Local communities and geneticists are working together to sequence DNA from remains that were taken from their homelands decades ago.
Several years ago, Gudju Gudju Fourmile welcomed back several members of his Yidinji community who had been taken from their homes in northern Australia almost a century ago. Like many other Indigenous communities in Australia, the Yidinji have worked for decades to bring the bodies of their ancestors home — which Aboriginal communities describe as returning to Country.
Many of the ancestors are off Country as a result of the dehumanizing practices of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when it was common for white collectors to loot graves and sell the remains of Aboriginal people to museums in Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries. “When our remains are off Country, we try to make sure they come back,” says Fourmile, an elder in the community who lives in Cairns. “They need to be comfortable. That’s a big thing for many tribal groups.” And when his community finally reburied its ancestors in 2014, “everybody was so happy. And the Country felt good again,” Fourmile says.
Before the Yidinji elders laid their ancestors to rest, they received a request from scientists who had been analysing the DNA of living community members: could they sequence the ancestors’ genomes, too? With permission granted, a team led by evolutionary geneticist David Lambert at Griffith University in Brisbane extracted DNA from the remains of one individual, and confirmed that the ancient person was closely related to Yidinji people alive today1,2. “When you find something out like that, you jump for joy,” says Fourmile. The event also marked a turning point in the mindset of the community, he says, when members started to realize the potential of DNA analysis to help bring their people back home.