Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

History Revisited - DNA link connects us to India

In 2003, then University of New England archaeologist Mike Morwood and colleagues announced the discovery of a potentially new human species on the Indonesian island of Flores. Dating suggested that that species had survived until perhaps 12,000 years ago. The discovery created controversy that continues to this day.

This year, a group of researchers associated with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in  Leipzig, Germany released the results of DNA studies suggested a genetic link between the Australian Aborigines and groups in Southern India and Sri Lanka.

This was not the first such discovery. In 2009, DNA analysis by a group of Indian researchers suggested that there was a genetic connection between the Australian Aborigines and certain tribal groups in Southern India that dated back to between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. This date range supported the idea that the first Aborigines came to Australia along a southern route via the Indian sub-content.

The Max Plank study along with an earlier 2002 study introduced a new dimension to the Indian connection, for DNA dating techniques suggested that the biological link dated back a bit over 4,000 years. In other words, new settlers had arrived in Australian and mixed with the local population.

This date has significance for another major debate in Australian historarchaeological survey, Mick Moore Jim Belshawy.

Around 5,000 years ago, significant changes began to appear in the Australian archeological record. The Aboriginal population grew, the dingo appeared for the first time, while there were significant changes in technology including new stone tools.

The stone tools included small backed blades whose purpose was initially unclear. Archeologists concluded that the blades were probably mounted on war spears. Added support for this view was provided by University of New England pre-historian Isabel McBryde’s discovery at Graman near Inverell of two backed blades with hafting still attached. At Wombah near the mouth of the Clarence, Isabel also discovered dingo bones associated with backed blades that were over 3,000 years old, one of the oldest dingo dates in the country.

The photo shows UNE History tutor Mick Moore and the author, right, on one of Isabel's survey missions at the time. 

Former UNE pre-historian Harry Lourandos called the whole process intensification, a term previously applied only to the shift from hunter-gathering to farming. But were these changes of indigenous origin, or were new ideas introduced by new settlers?

The real answer could well be a bit of both. The dingo was certainly introduced, but some of the changes in technology shown by the archaeological record were probably local developments.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 30 January 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

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