The 'first Aboriginal genome' was sequenced in 2011 using a hair sample collected by AC Haddon from a train station in 1923 and held in the Duckworth Collections at Cambridge. The Danish-led research team sought approval from the Goldfields Land and Sea Council — an organisation representing the community from which the hair sample is likely to have originated — generating controversy in the scientific community. This seminar explores this matter and relevant recent developments, and explores how Indigenous cultural heritage and scientific paradigms are shaping and informing each other. Through the examination of DNA extracted from human remains (including non-destructive analysis), science is contributing to knowledge of population histories. The scientific world is also being influenced by the ethical practices of Indigenous cultural heritage: biological samples are now considered by some to be cultural property, and the concept of repatriation has expanded to include blood samples taken for scientific study and not just items intended for burial. In considering these issues I ask questions about the culturalisation of biology, the biologisation of culture, and the extension of Indigenous personhood to incorporate biospecimens.
Emma Kowal is a senior research fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. She is a cultural anthropologist who has previously worked as a medical doctor and public health researcher in Indigenous health settings. Her research interests include Indigenous–state relations, white anti-racism, and race and science. Since 2007 she has been researching the use of genetics in Indigenous Australian communities. Her current research, supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA), is an anthropological and historical study of Indigenous biospecimen collection in the twentieth century and its legacy in the present.