Origins of the Australian and New Guinean Aborigines


Mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid (mtDNA), Y chromosome and limited genomic studies indicate deep ancestry for both Australia and New Guinea peoples, with evidence for limited, shared genetic connection as well as ancient lineages specific to both places. Estimates of divergence from the Revised Sapiens Reference Sequence (Behar et al., 2012) indicate that mtDNA haplogroups of living populations in Melanesia and Australia represent some of the oldest lineages outside Africa, founders having arrived there at least 50 000 years ago. Several entry points into Sahul during periods of glacial maxima might explain haplotype distribution. Distinctions between them and other near neighbours also indicate genetic isolation for long periods after sea levels rose. Phylogenies that explore genetic similarities/differences between peoples of Sahul and Asia suggest that migration routes through northern Asia as well as by a southern coastal route are likely scenarios, as no single regional source population is identifiable.

Key Concepts:

  • Australia and New Guinea were connected by a land bridge during periods of global glaciation forming a land mass known as Sahul, separated from Sunda.

  • Evidence indicates that people arrived in Sahul approximately 50–60 thousand years ago.

  • After the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), Australia and New Guinea were gradually separated and the populations were relatively isolated from each other.

  • People dispersed throughout the Australian continent by 40 thousand years ago.

  • Participation in genetic research by descendants of the ‘First Sahulians’ is relatively rare and they are under‐represented in global studies.

  • There is resistance from some descendants of the First Australians for many reasons including distrust generated by poor research practices of the past.

  • Studies that include indigenous researchers as well as participants are likely to encourage, facilitate and improve representation.

  • Those Aboriginal Australians who have participated in genetic research have contributed valuable data that enrich the global story of human diasporation and their own communal and personal history.

  • Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y‐chromosome analyses are particularly suitable for exploring recent human genetic history, whereas genome‐wide analyses are necessary for probing more deeply into population origins.

  • Complex population histories in Asia suggest different scenarios for likely routes and entry points for founding groups in Sahul.

Keywords: human origins; Australia; New Guinea; Sahul; aborigines

Figure 1.

(NJ) phylogeny (Tamura et al., ) of 91 sequences including African sequences L0/AY963585 (Macaulay et al., ); L1/AY195777, L2/AY195788 and the RSRS (Behar et al., ). References for the Australian and NG sequences shown in subtrees (Figure , Figure and Figure ) are: Ingman et al. , Ingman and Gyllensten , Friedlaender et al. , van Holst Pellekaan et al. , Kivisild et al. , Hudjashov et al. , Friedlaender et al. and Rassmussen et al. . Australian sequences are coloured as: M, green; S, red; O, magenta; P4b, dark blue and other P, light blue. Regional prefixes: Au, Australia; Aud, Australian Desert; Aur, Australian Riverine; AuWA, Australia Western Australia; ENB, East New Britain; Mel, Melanesia; NI, New Ireland; Oc, Oceania; PNGHi, Papua New Guinea Highland; PNGCo, Papua New Guinea Coastal, TRO, Trobriand Is.; WNB, West New Britain and WNG, West New Guinea.

Figure 2.

Condensed Neighbour‐joining (NJ) phylogeny showing >70% bootstrap value after 1000 replicates (Tamura et al., ) using 215 mt genome coding region sequences from Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea/Melanesia, north and south Asia and America as discussed and referenced in Supplementary material van Holst Pellekaan . Taxon labels are omitted for clarity. Nonsupported clusters are collapsed, only connecting to the main non‐African cluster. For explanation of supported clusters on left and right sides of the figure that remain after a 70% bootstrap value is imposed, read (a) % bootstrap value for the cluster followed by (b) haplogroup designation and (c) regional source of sequence. From top left anticlockwise: 99 RSRS, L0, L1 Africa; 91 L2 Africa; 98 A, Native American, Siberia; 78 O, Australia; 90 X, Native American; 81 S1a, Australia; 99 W, Asia; 99 S1b, Australia; 85 S2, Australia; 99 R12, Asia; 97 N, India; 99 P4b, Australia; 99 P4a, New Guinea; 78 B, Native American/Asia; 99 S3, Australia; 99 Andaman Is.; 89 D Native American/Asia; 72 M, India and 95 M, India. From top right clockwise: 99 P2, New Guinea, Melanesia; 91 P3, Australia & New Guinea; 76 M42a, Australia; 88 B, North Asia & New Guinea coastal; 99 Japan/East Asia; 95 C, Native American/Asia; 91 M, India; 99 M, India; 89 Q, New Guinea & Australia (1) and 99 M14, Australia.

Figure 3.

Macrohaplogroup ‘M’ subtree. Labels indicate a regional prefix followed by GenBank ID and name of haplogroup subdivisions.

Figure 4.

Macrohaplogroup ‘N’ subtrees of the NJ phylogeny in Figure . Major divisions of N are haplogroups ‘O’ (a) and ‘S’ (b). Labels indicate a regional prefix followed by GenBank ID, and name of haplogroup subdivisions where known.

Figure 5.

‘R’ subgroup of N and ‘P’ subgroup of R. Labels indicate a regional prefix followed by GenBank ID and name of haplogroup subdivisions.



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van Holst Pellekaan, Sheila M(Mar 2013) Origins of the Australian and New Guinean Aborigines. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020815.pub2]