Australian Aboriginal people are one?

By Razib Khan | October 27, 2010 1:22 am

ozlang2Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians is one of those books which I own which I finally managed to finish recently. It was a quick overview of Australian Aboriginals and their relationship with the settler society, and later in modern Australia. From what I could tell it was a serviceable introduction, though it took a persistent preachy tone whereby one was repeatedly reminded that the Aboriginals were an ever-peaceful people in harmony with nature, notwithstanding their regular burnings of the landscape and inter-tribal brawls. They were in timeless equilibrium with the land that they loved before the white man arrived to destroy their idyll with the shock of modern civilization. The narrative is presented as if the Aboriginals were almost totally static, and perfectly optimized to the environment that was Australia. I personally think this sort of model makes indigenous people less than human, even if it turns them into angels instead of beasts. Of course it’s probably impossible to not have a strong perspective in this sort of material, and I suppose this  type of treatment evens out the ledgers of the past. But one can discern the major themes from the subtle and not-so-subtle polemic easy enough.

One aspect of Aboriginal culture which I have wondered about is its perceived uniformity. The Dreamtime is discussed as if it’s a cultural universal among Australian Aboriginals. Is it? A little poking around indicates that Aboriginals seem to share the idea, though with variations. How’d that come to be? Broome’s model seems to assume that the Dreamtime has deep roots in Aboriginal culture, but we know that the roots likely don’t preexist their arrival in Australia, the people of New Guinea and Melanesia don’t have the concept. It may be that they lost the concept, but I doubt that all of them would. Rather the Dreamtime’s ubiquity in Australia may reflect demographic and cultural change within Australia since the arrival of modern humans ~50,000 years ago.

A paper I reviewed last summer used a thick survey of SNPs to place Australian Aboriginals in their proper global genetic context. One of the major shortcomings of that paper was that it had a small sample size from one specific Aboriginal population, and, that population was heavily admixed with Europeans. With intermarriage rates on the order of 70-80%, and a large load of European ancestry already in the Aboriginal community, the number of “pure” Aboriginals will decline rapidly in the the coming century. So I was curious enough to look for a paper which surveyed a wider range of Australian Aboriginal people. I found one, from 2007, A comprehensive analysis of microsatellite diversity in Aboriginal Australians:

Indigenous Australians have a unique evolutionary history that has resulted in a complex system of inter and intra-tribal relationships. While a number of studies have examined the population genetics of indigenous Australians, most have used a single sample to illuminate details of the global dispersal of modern humans and few studies have focussed on the population genetic features of the widely dispersed communities of the indigenous population. In this study we examine the largest Aboriginal Australian sample yet analysed (N = 8,868) at fifteen hypervariable autosomal microsatellite loci. A comprehensive analysis of differentiation indicates different levels of heterogeneity among indigenous peoples from traditional regions of Aboriginal Australia. The most genetically differentiated populations inhabit the North of the country, in particular the Tiwi of Melville and Bathurst islands, Arnhem Land (itself divided into West and East Arnhem), and Fitzmaurice regions. These tribal groups are most differentiated from other Aboriginal Australian tribes, especially those of the Central Desert regions, and also show marked heterogeneity from one another. These genetic findings are supportive of observations of body measurements, skin colour, and dermatoglyphic features which also vary substantially between tribes of the North (e.g. Arnhem Land) and Central Australian regions and, more specifically, between the Tiwi and West and East Arnhem tribes. This study provides the most comprehensive survey of the population genetics of Aboriginal Australia.

Though not totally representative of the geographic expanse of Aboriginal peoples, the sample size here was still huge. But, they looked only at fifteen microsatellite. Microsatellites mutate fast and so have a lot of variation to draw upon, but fifteen is a rather low number compared to the 160,000 core SNPs used in the paper from last summer. So here you have a trade off between population converge and depth of the genomic survey.

Below are the primary results. First are the Fst values comparing regions, and sub-regions. Second a PCA which shows the relationship between populations. Finally, a fine-grained neighbor-joining tree which shows the geographical clusters.

no images were found

My Australian readers can make more informed inferences, so I won’t say too much, aside from the impression that genetic distinction seems to correlate well with linguistic distinction. Here’s their conclusion:

The principal findings of this study are that the most differentiated tribal groups are located in three regions, West Arnhem Land, East Arnhem Land and Tiwi, all of which share borders with one another in the Central North of the continent. These tribal groups are most differentiated from other Aboriginal Australian tribes, especially those of the Central Desert regions, and also show marked heterogeneity from one another. These genetic findings are supportive of observations on body measurements….

Citation: Journal of Human Genetics 52, 712-728 (September 2007) | doi:10.1007/s10038-007-0172-z

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Genetics

Comments (17)

  1. Trudy Bray

    Maybe you could refer to Aborigines in the plural in the way they prefer and is correct for this country instead of Aboriginals?

  2. i’ll do so in the future.

  3. bioIgnoramus

    ” Aborigines in the plural in the way they prefer”: really, has that become fashionable again? It was a no-no when I lived in Oz.

  4. and in kanada i don’t think they say aborigines at all. they always say aboriginals. right?

  5. It might be worth pointing out that the northern areas highlighted here are the places where post-colonial forced migration and interference have been minimal. Although the central deserts are also fairly intact.

  6. i’m sure all my american readers are aware of the details of australian white settlement and indigenous dislocation 🙂

  7. Sandgroper

    #4 – Mistrust anyone claiming to speak on behalf of all Aboriginal Australians everywhere.

    The most recent unadmixed Aboriginal lady I have talked to wanted to know where she could get an AC/DC T-shirt.

    She meant this AC/DC, of course: Ah, culture.

    Note in the 3rd diagram – “Perth urban” next to “Torres Strait” and “Riverine Waveroo”. Perth is about as far from the Torres Strait as you can get, and both are pretty far from Victoria. Admixture is entirely possible, though. All the rest seem to make sense.

  8. Sandgroper

    Zeeb, I have been head scratching. Your question on culture is really difficult. Dreaming appears to be pervasive, but with major regional variations.

    But we are talking at least 250 language groups, most of which are now extinct, and the culture of most of those groups has probably been totally lost, so there is now no way of knowing. As far as I have been able to research, very few of all of those groups were documented in any kind of depth before the opportunity was lost. This is not hard to imagine – a nomadic people living in small family groups in all regions of a very large continent, including many extremely harsh environments. Often the first people to reach the remnants after the ravages of disease were drovers or prospectors, who were disinterested apart from trading tea and tobacco for sex, or missionaries, who were much more interested in clothing them and bringing them to the christian god than enquiring about and documenting traditional beliefs. And the people were naturally secretive, and quickly learned to be more so – being ‘good’ was rewarded with yummy new food like wheat flour, sugar and tea, and a sheep’s head if you were really lucky (a bit like my discovery of pizza when I was in my 20s), being ‘bad’ got punished. The tobacco traded was the cheapest and crummiest available and was called ‘nigger twist’, but I only know that from a reliable and hugely prolific novelist called Ion. L. Idriess, who wrote from personal experience and whose books I commend, if you can find them.

    I once met an Aboriginal girl from Broome in Western Australia who told me her grandfather was depicted in one of Idriess’s novels (Forty Fathoms Deep, published in 1937 about the natural pearling industry in Broome, in the north west of Western Australia) – I asked her whether Idriess’s depiction of her grandfather was accurate, and she said it was absolutely so. I have read most of his books, and he gives insights into Aboriginal culture not available in the anthropological record.

    I can really only give spot examples. The Noongar (Nyoongar, Nyungar, whatever) people in the south west of Australia, the region I am most familiar with, were the only people in the whole country who did not practise male circumcision. (Interestingly, there is some evidence that people reached this part of the country pretty early, maybe 48,000 years BP, and it is today relatively hospitable in terms of climate, and availability of water and native food sources.) Given that in this context “circumcision” can mean pretty major equipment modification performed at fairly advanced age using a sharp rock, that seems like a very distinct cultural disconnect.

    Noongar also wore clothes in cold weather – kangaroo skin cloaks.

    They (we) (I had a Noongar ancestor, but make no claims to being Aboriginal, because it would be a cultural lie on my part) had a belief (and still claim to believe, when it’s useful) in the Wagyl:

    which is quite different from Dreamtime super-beings in other parts of the country. Who the hell believes in a giant rainbow coloured serpent that shaped the landform, for crying out loud? These are self-evidently ridiculous beliefs. But then, aren’t they all? I wonder now how I was persuaded to put faith in the Anglican god as a child – lesson to kids: don’t trust adults, they’re full of it.

    As a kid, I was told lots of stories secretively by male Aboriginal peers about all kinds of stuff like “feather foots” (stealthy assassins who would come to the camp in the dead of night to kill people, their feet covered in feathers to cover their tracks), bone pointing and similar scary stuff, but I could never discern whether this was something real, or just stories told to kids to frighten them. I have heard songs about ghosts also designed to frighten small children. (Well, bone pointing was real enough, I think, I was told of individuals who had died of it.) (Some people pointed the bone at former Prime Minister John Howard, but it didn’t work, the little bastard is still alive.)

    But when I look for written accounts of the stories I was told, I can’t find most of it. That’s the thing with oral history – when the people die, the history disappears.

    Indigenous Australians are very enthusiastic about Australian football, and many excel. But as far as I can find out, Marn Grook was played only in western Victoria. Victoria claims, rightly, to be the home of Australian football. But I played Marn Grook as a kid, on the opposite side of the continent. We just didn’t know that was what it was.

  9. thanks for the info SG. the main issue that i’m trying to figure out is the aspect f universality among aborigines in their culture. in a landmass the size of the continental USA my suspicion is that the relatively high level of uniformity we see today has to be due to some sort of wide-scale demographic/cultural change in the relatively recent past. that’s why i was curious about the dreamtime. of course as you say much of the uniformity might be perception and imposed from the outside. to some extent indigenous populations recreate identities after being “shocked” by settler societies, and so aborigines might be more uniform than they were prior party because of unified exogenous perceptions and pressures.

    a linguist can correct me, but it seems that oz is way less linguistically diverse than new guinea. but both regions have been settled as long. so why the difference? part of it is probably ecological in terms of how fragmented the landscape is, but the expanse of paman languages for example seems pretty peculiar to me.

  10. re: bone-pointing. i remember seeing a story in the 80s about it on TV about how some aboriginal man who lived in a large city who ended up dying in his apartment after someone from his home village or wuteva did a bone-pointing ritual around his complex. the assumption is that the consequence was psychosomatic, as the terror induced shock or something. but the authorities couldn’t bring charges obviously since the death was induced by the man’s belief in the efficacy of the action.

  11. OTOH, interestingly ozzie english speakers also often assert that there’s no regional accent in their nation. unlike the USA.

  12. “OTOH, interestingly ozzie english speakers also often assert that there’s no regional accent in their nation. unlike the USA.”

    There are subtle differences. The biggest notable difference is between city and country; the broadest and most stereotypical aussie accents are definitely in the regional areas. Social class often has something to do with it as well.

    Btw, without wanting to come over all PC, “Aborigines” is generally accepted as a better term than “Aboriginals” in Australia.

  13. Sandgroper

    #10 – yes, exactly. I think you’ve nailed it, you are just a lot better at expressing it than I am.

    I think the Pama-Nyungan language thing was a sprachbund – there was communication and trade over long distance by highly mobile people. Austalia is flat, dry and easy to traverse, as long as you know where to dig for water, New Guinea is very wet, steeply mountainous and disease-ridden. Papuans are agricultural and sedentary, Abos are HGs and highly mobile. I have talked to unadmixed Aboriginal females from the north of Western Australia to whom 15 – 20 miles of walking in a day plus other activities was all in a day’s normal activity, and this in intense arid tropical environments.

  14. Sandgroper

    #12 – not true, there are subtle but discernable differences to a local, although nothing like the US.

    In Oz as a whole, there is a big “we are one people” thing, which is a political, anti-multicultural construct. The Oz image as a classless society is also a cover.

    #13 – You finally showed up! I was wondering if you ever would 🙂

    Yes to everything you said. But the biggest difference, IMHO, is between Adelaide and everywhere else.

    Stick around, bro, your observation and commentary is useful. And fun.

    For laughs, my daughter has been commenting on her chem lab partner for a while, a friendly brownish male shorter than she is named Lopez who she guessed was Meso-American or South American. She found out today – he’s Australian-born Filipino. She’s hopeless at this stuff. So is he – he thought she was pure Chinese.

  15. Ponto

    Feathered feet. In the Territory they are shoes worn by the Kadaitcha man. The shoes are a way of disguising tracks as the shoes are round, so you don’t know if they are coming or going. A Kadaitcha man is someone who punishes people for some transgression. There are also the Red Men so called because they are covered in red ochre. The Red Men are sort of nasty shamans, and most Aborigines here would disappear into the bush if they heard they are in the vicinity.

    The Dreamtime is just the name given to the stories, songs, secrets that are passed on from one generation to another. The stories are just explanations of the world, the universe, creation, life and death. Some are only passed on to women, others to men and only once passed initiation into adulthood. Europeans have their religion, science, old wives tales, traditions in a similar vein. The Dreamtime is not the same for all Aborigines. For example, the creation of the world or humans may involve different creator spirits. A lot of the Dreamtime are lessons for children in why they shouldn’t behave selfishly and to the detriment of others. Moral stories.

    I would have to say that the writer of the book you read is one of those idiots who believes that Aborigines are not responsible for anything that happens to them, and had no bad attributes prior to the coming of European and civilization. It is called the Poor Bugger Me story. The Aborigines are responsible for the extinction of the Megafauna in Australia, and the extinction of other animals and plants. How? The over usage of fire and the destruction of food plants that the megafauna and other animals depended on. The Eucalyptus and Acacia ssp are the main flora in Australia due to the burning regimen of Aborigines. Only schlerophytic plants could survive.

    By the way, most Aborigines are mixed. They are called Yellows in my part of Australia by the unmixed Aborigines. The unmixed Aborigines despise the Yellows. Why? Because the Yellows take all the money available for Aborigines, keep it all to themselves, are pretend Aborigines as long as the money lasts, and the Yellows really hate the unmixed Aborigines. Unmixed Aborigines have no status as they have not become men or women, have no totems or moities or knowledge of Aboriginal Law. I suspect Sandgroper is a Yellow. Sure sounds like one.

  16. Sandgroper

    No, I’m a white man with some Aboriginal ancestry, but culturally white. Many Australians are. I though what I said about myself made that absolutely clear – I do not self-identify as Aboriginal and have never taken a dollar as an indigenous person, and never will.

    And no, I don’t hate unadmixed Aboriginal people at all – I have known many in my life, they have formed part of my landscape, especially as a small child, and I have strong long term memory. I don’t hate “yellows” as you call them either. But I dispute that modern unadmixed people are culturally unaltered, they clearly are not. I know what such people were like.

    And I dispute that someone from Alice Springs is in any position to talk about people from the whole continent in the past. And you sure sound like an alcoholic moron, e.g. there was no Kadaitcha man (singular), there were Kurdaitcha men, and the story about not being able to tell whether they were coming or going is pure bullshit. In short, I do not recognise you as a competent authority on the subject, particularly as you have said nothing to address the post, which is clearly about Aboriginal genetic diversity which appears to align with linguistic diversity, you moron.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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