New research mapping the Aboriginal genome garnered international attention last week and is re-writing the history books on human migration. But scientists fear the news raises an ethical quagmire here in Australia.

The research, led by Eske Willerslev of the Natural History Museum of Denmark and published in Science, is the first time a complete Aboriginal genome has been sequenced. By examining a hair given to British anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon in the 1920s by a now-deceased Australian Aboriginal male, Willerslev and his team of researchers established the native man was directly descended from a group that migrated out of Africa into Asia around 70,000 years ago, the first group to separate from modern humans.

That means local Aborigines moved out of Africa 40,000 years earlier than those groups who migrated to the rest of Asia, challenging the accepted theory of a single mass migration from Africa. It also found Aboriginal Australians are genetically closer to Asians than Europeans.

It’s fascinating data and scientifically very important. But this research is also “unchartered ethical territory” says Dr Emma Kowal, a cultural anthropologist and medical doctor at the Lowitja Institute at the University of Melbourne. Kowal notes there are insufficient guidelines in Australia for genetic researchers working in indigenous communities.

Dr Michael Inouye, a genomicist at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, agreed, telling Crikey he was “extremely concerned about the ethical practices” of the Aboriginal genome research and for the “potential damage” this and further research may cause.

What kind of damage? “I think it’s actually quite unknown at this point,” replied Inouye. “As it stands, Australia hasn’t had a mature, thorough discussion about how genetic research should be done with indigenous people.”

Not to insinuate that Willerslev and his team abandoned all ethics. In June this year, Willerslev and fellow researcher Dr Joe Dortch arrived in Kalgoorlie to present some of their findings to the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, the region where the unidentified indigenous man gave his hair sample to Haddon in 1923.

The main issue of contention was clarifying if the hair sample had been given willingly. Dr Craig Muller, researcher manager at the Goldfields Land and Sea Council, examined old newspaper articles to discover that Haddon was in Australia attending the Pan Pacific Science Congresses in Sydney and Melbourne in 1923. On his way back home he caught a train that stopped at Golden Ridge, near Kalgoorlie. This is where the now-famous hair sample exchange took place.

According to Muller the fact that the train only stopped for 40 minutes, Golden Ridge was a well-known train station for Aboriginal people to gather and trade food for artefacts, and by this stage Haddon was 68 years old, all helped the Goldfields Council come to the conclusion the sample must have been given willingly.

“That fact took the heat out of a lot of potential controversy,” Muller told Crikey. “I think the science community must respect the right to give prior and informed consent.”

When Willerslev and Dortch arrived in Kalgoorlie in June, their research mapping an Aboriginal genome was nearly complete. But Muller said Willerslev told the Goldfields Council he would stop all his research if the council did not approve. But it endorsed the research and Willerslev told Crikey the council’s “support for the research was given freely, enthusiastically and unanimously”.

“It’s really heartening that in this first Aboriginal genome study that the community has engaged and given consent, so that’s a really positive outcome,” Kowal told Crikey. “But it does raise broader questions about samples, hair and other types that are held in museums overseas. Due to the incredible advance in genomic technologies it’s been difficult for the ethical side of the things to keep up.”

The Lowitja Institute have been working to encourage a closer relationship between indigenous communities and genetic researchers. Kowal was one of the authors of a recent discussion paper that examined critical ethical issues around genetic research of indigenous communities, including the issue of consent with genetic samples, the engagement of local communities in research outcomes, respect for indigenous beliefs and then the storage and third-party access given to data and research results.

“We have identified in our review that there is a big gap in understanding the ethical implications to genetic research,” said Kowal. “I think the example we’ve had of the research today just exemplifies that.”

It’s the third-party access to data which could be the most troubling. “One of the major concerns for me that might not necessarily be damaging, but could be very difficult for people, is the data release for this Aboriginal genome,” noted genomicist Inouye.

All genome data is placed online and publicly accessible. Meaning, other experiments and research can now be conducted on that data — possibly including experiments which could examine the “Aboriginality” of certain individuals compared to their European DNA.

“There is an underlying tension there between a movement within science to have increasingly open access to data to further the goals of scientific inquiry,” said Kowal. “In general, indigenous groups will want to control the access to the data, with good reason.”

Muller acknowledged that Willerslev explained in June to the Goldfields Council that the genetic data would be made public, but that he had the full support of the council regardless. Willerslev also gave the Goldfields community the opportunity to say whether they will allow future research on the data, an offer he made in June and then again recently, says Muller.

“It was made very clear that this research would not be used for establishing anyone’s identity,” said Muller. “There is concern that this means a return to indigenous identity to a scientific definition when it’s been cultural for decades. But this [research] is not going to change that and I don’t think anyone thinks it will change that.”

Instead of raising questions about indigenous identity and the racial makeup of Aboriginal Australians in contemporary society, the Goldfields Council hoped the research would have a positive outcome. “There was a widespread feeling that this is a good reminder to the broader community of the incredibly long occupation of Australia by the Aboriginal community and that they are the first occupants,” said Muller.