Historic hair samples collected from Aboriginal people show that following an initial migration 50,000 years ago, populations spread rapidly around the east and west coasts of Australia.
Our research, published in Nature today, also shows that once settled, Aboriginal groups remained in their discrete geographical regions right up until the arrival of Europeans a few hundred years ago. So where does the evidence for this rapid migration and long settlement come from?
In a series of remarkable expeditions that ran from the 1920s to 1960s, scientists travelled widely across the Australian outback. They recorded as much anthropological information as possible about Aboriginal Australians.
They recorded film and audio, drawings, songlines, genealogies and extensive physical measurements under tough outback conditions. This included packing in the equipment on camels for the early trips.
The extensive collections from the Board for Anthropological Expeditions are now curated in the South Australian Museum.
They contain the vast majority of the black and white film footage you may have seen of traditional Aboriginal culture, songs, hunting practices and ceremonies.
The metadata collected was voluminous. It now comprises possibly the best anthropological collection of an indigenous people in the world.
But perhaps the biggest scientific contributions may yet turn out to be hidden within small locks of hair. These were collected with permission (such as it was given in the situation and era) for a minor project to study the variation of Aboriginal hair types across Australia.
But the hair clippings turn out to preserve an incredible record of the genetic diversity and distribution of Indigenous Australia prior to European disruption.
Importantly, the detailed genealogical data collected with each sample allows the genetic lineages to be placed on the map back through several generations.
This allowed us to reconstruct the genetic structure within Australia prior to the forced relocation of Aboriginal people to missions and stations, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their traditional lands.