Indian connection to Australian aborigines: Conflicting claims and contrary proofs
by Jayasree Saranathan on 28 Nov 2020 1 Comment

The ancestry of Australian aborigines has been a subject of interest from Indian, and particularly South Indian point of view, ever since it was found that the direct descendants (in Madurai) of out-of Africa migration shared the same genetic marker M130 with nearly half of Australian aborigines. Fourteen members of a family of Piramalai Kallar community settled near Madurai are found to have this genetic marker which is also found in some sections in the Western Ghats. The same is also found in Malaysia and Philippines. (See here)


The connection between Australia and Malaysia or Philippines is understandable due to proximity between those places, but a vast ocean separating Australia and India on the one side and Africa and India on the other had puzzled the researchers as to how the migration had happened to India. The usually hypothesised route is from Africa to Australia via India along the coast.


A genetic study published in 2009 (here) more or less supported this route based on the finding that the Australian aborigines shared a mutation of mtDNA (received by everyone from their mother) with some Indian tribal populations.


But a more recent study (here) says that the genetic history indicated by the Y chromosome (received from father to son only) of the Australian aborigines show that they are indigenous to Australia and not connected with or shared by the Indians. That means the fathers there in Australia stayed put for all these 50,000 years. The mothers came from India! This is how a commoner like me will deduce!


In between these two studies there was another study published in 2013 (here) that said that some Indians with Dingo dogs had migrated to Australia straight across the Indian Ocean some 4000 years ago.


It is nice to hear the genetic connections between regions, but to accept the theories of how the migration could have happened is a bit difficult in this sector of population as we have some local history of the past going back to thousands of years. Around 3500 years ago, a final deluge drowned all the habitats in the Indian Ocean forcing a group of people headed by the Pandyan king to move to the Indian mainland via the western ghat section (Kollam to be precise) and settle down in Madurai finally.


The presence of M130 (initially detected in Virumandi Andi Thevar of Madurai) in Madurai can be traced to this migration (here). Earlier their ancestors could have inhabited some island (peak of submerged Western Ghats) in the West Indian Ocean where Mascarene plateau was a highland until 7000 years ago. Before that period, the Pandyans of the first Sangam age were located on the eastern section of the Indian Ocean somewhere near Sundaland. That was closer to Australia.


When sea floods and tsunamis had happened, the Australian aborigines had moved further inland of Australia while those scattered in the Indian Ocean islands moved in different directions. Those closer to the Indian land mass moved to India and those on the eastern sector moved to occupy the Polynesian islands. This dispersal took place almost in the same period of 3500 years before present.


Previous dispersal had happened about 7000 years ago when the Tamil speaking Pandyans moved away from southern latitudes (closer to Australia and Sunda land) towards western Indian Ocean islands and the southern tip of India which was jutting out into the Indian Ocean but now under water. The same period also saw floods in Australia which are known from the preserved stories of Australian aborigines (here).


The aborigines who had migrated inland did not venture out of Australia anytime in the past. Thus their Y chromosome had remained exclusively within Australia. Others who were outside Australia had perished although those with M130 marker had survived and spread to other places. This could be the only explanation why the aboriginal Y chromosome is retained within Australia while the mtDNA is shared by others in India.


With the existing inputs, I can say that the aborigines shared a common past with Indians, particularly south Indians or Tamils who were scattered in the Indian Ocean. The foremost common evidence is the Boomerang, the unique tool used by Australian aborigines only. The only other place where we find boomerang in use is in the community of Piramalai Kallar – the same community some of whom are found to have the same genetic marker of the aborigines! Yet another place where we find this boomerang is in Minoan art (Greece 3500 BP). The time tallies with the same deluge that brought in Pandyans and Tamils to Madurai. The boomerang could have travelled along the sea route around Africa and entered the Mediterranean Sea and from there to pre-Hellenistic Greece.


Another striking similarity between Indian and Australian aboriginal population is the way they decorate the body with white marks. The aborigines are known for making white marks on the body. They are mostly striped marks and are done on religious occasions. They look similar to the marks made by Shiva or Muruga devotees with white ash (vibhuthi).


The culture of smearing white ash on the body started with the legend of Lord Shiva dancing at the death of Tripura asuras, which I believe symbolises the destruction of Mt Toba. The explosion of Mt Toba resulted in the spewing of white ash everywhere. The dance of death at that explosion symbolised in the dance of Shiva as the Destroyer was known as “Pandaranagam”. From then onwards the habit of smearing white ash had come to stay. The staunch devotees of Shiva used to smear white ash all over the body. The living examples are the Naga sages.


Others used to wear stripes of white ash on the forehead and all over the body. Similar habits in Australian aborigines especially during religious and spiritual events seem to have sprung from a common practice in an undated past that was developed by Indian ancestors. The practice stayed with the aborigines, but the original cause was lost.


Another striking similarity with aborigines is the use of a wind instrument called Didgeridoo. It is a long pipe which they blow on all important occasions. Usually a didgeridoo player will be accompanied with a clapstick player and a song man. They go together to remote places and play out the olden myths and stories of the aboriginal community.


This has striking similarity to Tamil customs in two ways. One is that a similar looking wind pipe is a popular indigenous instrument in rural Tamilnadu, called ‘Thaarai’. It is always accompanied with a drum beaten with two sticks, called “Thappattai”. Together they are known as “thaarai – thappattai”. The long and extended wind pipe is blown in all ceremonies varying from death ceremonies to religious ceremonies in rural Tamil lands. The aborigines do the same with didgeridoo.


The second similarity is that the aborigine didgeridoo player used to go around the lands along with a song man who will sing the histories of aborigines. This is similar to the description in Tamil Sangam texts of PaaNan, the song man or composer going in the company of instrumentalists to places and singing songs to earn a living. Verse 335 of Purananuru (a Sangam text) is in the form of a narration by a PaaNan who identifies himself along with three others as the oldest clans in Tamil lands. They are PaaNan (composer cum singer), Paraiyan (drummer), Thudiyan (another kind of drummer) and Kadamban (not exactly known but can be a dancer). This verse mentions only these four people as the oldest inhabitants (kudi) of Tamil lands. Aborigines with similar avocations seem to possess a history of a very distant past that is forgotten completely now but can be discovered through Tamil and Indian cultural traits.


Most of the aboriginal ideas on religion are similar to Hindu Thought. They believe in life after death; in the eternity of the soul. For them life and death are in perfect harmony and death means new birth into another existence. What is more, the aborigines consider earthly existence as similar to ‘maya’, a kind of dream state and consider death as a return to an existence from a dream-like earthly life. As such they don’t think that death means an end.


This belief in afterlife has given rise to worship of ancestors. Like Hindus, they believe that ancestors bestow their blessings on their offspring. They come in dreams at times to forewarn of some danger. Their views on sleep and dreaming are amazingly close to Hindu Thought. They believe that everyone leaves the soul during sleep and wanders in dream-like state.


The kind of spiritual ideas of Hinduism found among them with no organised head or community to lead them in their thousands of years of seclusion could not have come to them without a common ancestor in a very distant past who had separated from them long ago.


In this background, one evidence is the image of a female found in ancient aboriginal art that is strikingly similar to an old Hindu concept of Lajja Gauri, a personification of Vedic Goddess Aditi, mother of all gods and known as goddess of Fertility. The same concept is also found in the Goddess Pachamama of Incas in the Andes, also known as Fertility giver.


Similar images for the same concept in three different places – how could this happen independently of each other?


The only plausible explanation is the presence of a common ancestor. A common group of ancestors of the present day people (in Andes, Australian aborigines and Hindus) at a single location at a distance past had scattered far and wide. Among them the aborigines seem to have frozen into a different time scale of the past. Though genetic studies seem to raise conflicting questions on their ancestral connections, we may have to wait for more studies to come up as the cultural similarities between them and the Indians cannot be easily brushed aside as insignificant.


Genetics reveal 50,000 years of independent history of aboriginal Australian people


The first complete sequences of the Y chromosomes of Aboriginal Australian men have revealed a deep indigenous genetic history tracing all the way back to the initial settlement of the continent 50,000 years ago, according to a study published in the journal Current Biology.


The study by researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and collaborators at La Trobe University in Melbourne and several other Australian institutes, challenges a previous theory that suggested an influx of people from India into Australia around 4-5,000 years ago. This new DNA sequencing study focused on the Y chromosome, which is transmitted only from father to son, and found no support for such a prehistoric migration.


The results instead show a long and independent genetic history in Australia. Modern humans arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago, forming the ancestors of present-day Aboriginal Australians. They were amongst the earliest settlers outside Africa. They arrived in an ancient continent made up of today’s Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, called Sahul, probably thousands of years before modern humans arrived in Europe. Five thousand years ago, dingos, the native dogs, somehow arrived in Australia, and changes in stone tool use and language around the same time raised the question of whether there were also associated genetic changes in the Australian Aboriginal population.


At least two previous genetic studies, one of which was based on the Y chromosome, had proposed that these changes could have coincided with mixing of Aboriginal and Indian populations about 5,000 years ago.


Anders Bergstrom, first author on the paper at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said:

“We worked closely with Aboriginal Australian communities to sequence the Y chromosome DNA from 13 male volunteers to investigate their ancestry. The data show that Aboriginal Australian Y chromosomes are very distinct from Indian ones. These results refute the previous Y chromosome study, thus excluding this part of the puzzle as providing evidence for a prehistoric migration from India. Instead, the results are in agreement with the archaeological record about when people arrived in this part of the world.”


Dr. John Mitchell, Associate Professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, explained:

“Clearly there is keen interest in the Aboriginal community to explore their genetic ancestry and without them this study would not be possible - our first step was to return their results to them, before the scientific article was published. This collaboration in genome sequencing, to explore their ancient history, was made possible by years of engagement beforehand with Aboriginal communities.”


Further study is needed to answer questions such as how the dingo got to Australia and why other people such as the seafaring Polynesians didn’t settle on the continent. Expanding the genetic analyses beyond the Y chromosome and to the whole genome will also be necessary to completely rule out external genetic influences on the Aboriginal Australian population before the very recent times.


Lesley Williams, who was responsible for the liaison with the Aboriginal community, said:

“As an Aboriginal Elder and cultural consultant for this project I am delighted, although not surprised, that science has confirmed what our ancestors have taught us over many generations, that we have lived here since the Dreaming.”


Dr Chris Tyler Smith, group leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute added:

“By fully sequencing and analysing Y-chromosomal DNA, we have been able to trace ancient human migrations and inform living people about their ancestry. We are using the latest technology to genetically unearth our ancient history - something that has only become possible in the last decade. We look forward to further collaborations to understand more of this unique heritage.”


Source: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute [February 25, 2016]



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